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The state’s transport agency failed to detect homeless people living in buildings that house key rail infrastructure for weeks, despite police and the council knowing of the squatters, before damage to signalling equipment caused tens of thousands of Matildas fans to be delayed for hours on Wednesday night.
A drug-affected and mentally unwell homeless man confessed he cut and tore out wires in a railway station relay room at Ashfield, triggering chaos across Sydney’s train network during the Matildas’ World Cup game, a court has heard.
Workers found debris strewn through one of the signal box buildings at Ashfield station. Damage to the signal box caused major delays to trains carrying football fans from Olympic Park.
Police say 100,000 people were disrupted by the hundreds of cancelled trains and spiralling delays, which could have ended in a crowd crush.
Photos obtained by the Herald show workers who rushed to the buildings housing the critical equipment next to Ashfield station late on Wednesday discovered rubbish strewn through one of them, as well as electrical pliers, scissors, a tent and foam mattresses.
Anthony Pike, 33, had been living at the railway near Ashfield station for weeks, with swags and personal effects arranged about the station, his legal aid lawyer Matthew Lorkin told Burwood Local Court.
The local council and police knew multiple homeless people lived there. The station falls in the Inner West Council area.
The signal box at Ashfield that was allegedly vandalised on Wednesday night.Credit: Dean Sewell
Sydney Trains said each of its 1000 signalling equipment locations had to be maintained every six months, adding that its security team was assisting police with CCTV and other evidence which might help determine the timeframe of the breach. Maintenance and engineering teams were last at the Ashfield signal box on August 1.
Police allege Pike, 33, jumped a fence at the railway late on Wednesday evening and entered the room which is used to house relay equipment for the railway.
They allege Pike began snipping and pulling wires from the relay, causing $15,000 damage and throwing the train system into disarray. “There was significant risk of crowd crush created by extensive delays to trains,” a police prosecutor told the court.
Police said they questioned Pike at the station, and he admitted to damaging the relays, but Pike’s lawyer said he denies making any such admissions. “It was the anniversary of his mother’s death, he had something to drink, in combination with medication, but he denies the veracity of those admissions,” his lawyer told the court.
Pike’s alleged accomplice, Damian Stewart, 47, who also has mental health issues, had been sleeping rough at the railway station as well for the last month, Lorkin said.
Police allege Stewart stood outside the relay room and fled the scene after Pike snipped the wires. Stewart denied being involved.
“We say we never went into the room, we say if they do fingerprinting or DNA or footprint analysis – we never went into that room, and we never touched a thing in that room,” Lorkin said.
Both men were refused bail to reappear in October.
The travel chaos on Wednesday night, which again exposed the fragility of Sydney’s rail network, sparked calls for more staff at stations during major events, improved communications with passengers stuck on platforms, and bolstered security.
Damian Zac Stewart (left) and Anthony Joel Pike have both been charged with multiple offences including aggravated breaking and entering.Credit: Dean Sewell
Premier Chris Minns, who apologised to fans for the disruptions, said the government clearly needed to look at security of the transport network, especially for critical infrastructure, and a review would be undertaken.
“This is a violent act of vandalism on the transport network that’s resulted in tens of thousands of people being severely disrupted in the middle of the night from getting home,” he said.
Football fans left waiting for more than 90 minutes at Olympic Park station for trains were critical of the lack of communication to passengers.
Mathew Hounsell, a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney’s transport research centre, said the disruption highlighted poor communication with passengers, a lack of station staff and clear delegated responsibility during major events.
“It’s a systemic problem. Everyone is trying their best, but there is a lack of co-ordination, processes and communication.”
Premier Chris Minns and Transport Minister Jo Haylen apologise to football fans for the major train delays.Credit: Oscar Colman
Hounsell said security of key infrastructure needed to be bolstered, and the transport agency should put on more buses from Olympic Park to key interchanges such as Strathfield, Lidcombe and Auburn during major events.
Sydney Trains chief executive Matt Longland said authorities were able to redeploy some buses from other routes on Wednesday night to ferry fans to the CBD from Olympic Park.
However, he said crowds the size of those at Olympic Park were difficult to transport by bus because each carried a maximum of about 200 people, compared with 2000 on a single train.
Opposition transport spokeswoman Natalie Ward said the incident showed the need for greater back-up measures across the rail network, which was a matter on which the opposition would support the government.
“It is concerning, however, that the transport minister’s own review into Sydney Trains did not identify risks like this. It does make you question what the point of the review really was,” she said.
An interim report in May from a review into repeated failures across the rail network laid much of the blame on a major change to the timetable, and industrial action last year delaying fixes.
Transport Minister Jo Haylen said she wanted to be “very clear” that it was a deliberate act that had significantly damaged critical rail infrastructure.
“It was not our system that was broken last night – it was broken into by this deliberate act,” she said. “It really beggars belief. It risks the safety of our network, and it is not acceptable.”
Terry Lee-Williams, a former senior Transport for NSW executive who is now director of future transport for engineering consultant Aurecon, said upgrading the rail system to military specifications to build a dual redundancy would come at a massive cost for moderate benefits.
“You would have to spend billions. There is only so much you can do if someone does a criminal act,” he said.
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