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Alex Claassens – a face of the Australian railway

Alex Claassens has spent years pushing for wholesale change and improvements in the New South Wales rail sector. Now, he’s taking his fight to the national stage

Alex Claassens is one of the great modern people of the Australian railway, and the veteran of the industry is hoping to continue to affect wholesale, tangible change to the profession’s national landscape in his new role as National Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU).

Following a string of high-profile battles in his former role as the RTBU NSW State Secretary, he’s become the face of an industry battling to continue to get the best out of itself against the brunt of a rapidly changing transport landscape.

Claassens, however, is not solely a union man flown in to push an agenda. He himself is a former career train driver who started his career in the 1970s, off the back of what has remained the worst train disaster in Australian history.

The Granville rail disaster saw the death of 84 people with a further 213 injured just 20km north-west of Sydney.

Now, almost 50 years later, Claassens is still involved with the railway – albeit in a different capacity – and he says growing up in the environment of the Granville rail disaster fostered a passion for ensuring safety was of paramount importance for all those involved in the industry.

“I started the year after the Granville train accident happened,” Claassens tells ATN. “When you start a job on the heels of an incident like that, where lots of people lost their lives and there were lots of investigations, you learn a lot.

“We’re still here and we’re trying to do a good job to the best of our abilities, but there’s a continued need for good, safe equipment.

“We’ve got a group of people that are always out there saying ‘let’s introduce automation and artificial intelligence’, but time and time again you see that falls over.

“It’s still so important to us to keep good training standards, whether that be people working in a customer service role, a maintenance role, or operating the vehicles. We’ve got to try and be bigger and better consistently across the industry.

“That’s what it’s all about. We get up every morning and look at how we can do things better for our people, and how we can make sure our members can come to work and then go home safely.”

How, then, does Claassens see the current state of rail freight in the country? It’s the industry that started his long and storied association with the Australian railway, and it’s an industry that’s being heralded as a pillar of the environmentally friendly future of the wider national freight landscape?

The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) recently submitted a list of recommendations to the New South Wales government, in which was a statement asserting 30 per cent of the state’s freight should be moved to rail.

Data from NSW Ports shows just 17 per cent of freight that arrives at port of export comes via rail, while just two per cent of freight in the nation’s busiest corridor – between Melbourne and Sydney – comes from the railway.

That 30 per cent figure that has been floated by the ARA, Claassens says, could easily be larger.

“I was driving freight trains long before I was driving passenger trains,” Claassens says.

“It’s been very disappointing to watch the decline of rail freight over the years. We’ve still got all these facilities sitting in the country towns it all used to go through. I remember it used to take eight hours to get from Lithgow to Sydney because you would have to stop and shut places like Lawson.

“The ARA is right to call for that, and I’d argue we should have more than 30 per cent.

“I’m looking forward to having lots of conversations within a national space, because I think I can go on to have those conversations now, and Canberra is the place to go and do that because people are starting to listen.

“We can do all of these sorts of things so much smarter if we all work together.”

Those conversations in Canberra will be about far more than just the future rail freight though, as Claassens will now represent thousands of workers across the nation in the transport sector.

Whether it be regarding freight transport, public transport, conditions, safety, pay and anything and everything in between, he will be there on the national stage continuing to push the industry forward to the best of his ability.

And while the profile that has been built across the nation doesn’t quite sit comfortably with him, Claassens says he’s happy to use his notoriety to his advantage as he embarks on this new role.

“I’m not really good at talking about myself, because it’s never been about me,” he says. “It’s about the whole team, but I have a profile now and people know they can talk to me.

“I don’t mind having a chat, and I do that with anybody and everybody. I don’t have a filter and I call it the way I see it.

“I’m not going to tell you what you want to hear, I’m going to tell you what you need to hear, and I’m in a position where I can talk as that person who has lived the railway.

“While there are still concerns out there on the network about ways to keep people safe, I’m going to be out there with a voice trying to do something about it.

“I’m looking forward to this new National Secretary role, even though it wasn’t initially in my plans, but given the fact I still go out and volunteer to drive heritage trains on the weekend and I’m so close to the ground, I know what goes on and I think we can still do things better.”

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