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Sydney transport: trams halted, buses ‘hacked’

A ‘fire alarm incident’ halted Sydney’s CBD to Kingsford light rail services on 20 June. This followed a reported cyberware ‘hacking’ incident, possibly Chinese in origin, affecting Sydney’s state bus network. Photo: Alec Smart


In a series of incidents that impacted Sydney’s central public transport network, the light rail service was halted following a ‘fire alarm’ incident, and the state-run bus network experienced a computer outage blamed on ‘hackers’.

A mysterious fire alarm at the Randwick depot caused the suspension of Sydney’s new light rail service on 20 June. The trouble-prone and significantly over-budget CBD and South East Light Rail, which ground to a halt with technical problems just hours after its long-delayed launch on 14 Dec, was shut down again.

At 9am on Saturday 20 June, the fire suppression system was activated, forcing the shutdown of the operation’s control centre while fire inspectors and computer experts investigated the issue. This caused a reduction of the L2 Circular Quay to Randwick service, cutting trams to one every 15-20 minutes, and a complete suspension of the L3 Circular Quay to Kingsford. Buses were brought in to replace the light rail along the latter section.

The older L1 Inner West Light Rail, which began operating in 1997 and has been almost trouble-free since its inception, continued services as per usual.

TransDev, the French-based multinational that runs the new light rail service, remained mute on their webpage and social media pages on the cause of the fire alarm activation.

Meanwhile, Transport for NSW information technology (IT) experts are investigating the massive system outage that impacted computers and phones for nine days across its eight State Transit Authority (STA)
Sydney bus depots.

The Sun-Herald reported a ‘senior insider’ attributing the computer troubles to a “malicious hack”. According to their ‘senior source close to bus operations’: “it was a hack. It was a malicious hack… STA management has confirmed it was, in fact, a hack”.

However, Secretary of Transport for NSW, Rodd Staples, played down the ‘hacking’ possibility. Staples confirmed in a statement that the outage was being investigated by IT teams. “There has been no impact to customers or bus services as a result of the outage, and staff have been paid on time,” he said. “Based on information to date we do not believe this is linked to any other incident. Transport for NSW continues to invest in the highest level of cyber defence.”

The ‘other incident’ he referred to was Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s revelation on Fri 19 June that Australian companies and Federal and State Government departments were being targeted by a “state-based cyber actor” – implicated as the Chinese Communist Party (or persons authorised by them).

The NSW Labor Party blamed the ruling Liberal Party for weakening the State government’s vulnerability to advanced hackers through a “failure to invest in cyber security measures.” They linked the latest hacking incidents to the Dec 2019 report by the NSW Auditor-General, Margaret Crawford, which warned that 37 per cent of NSW government agencies failed to update computer software applications with security fix patches when they were released.

Using an ‘essential eight’ modelling strategy, Crawford’s agency also warned a significant proportion of government staff were accessing data without multi-factor authentication, daily back-ups and strict administrative protocols necessary to prevent malware and limit violations of cybersecurity incidents.

Unfair fares?
The fire alarm incident came a day after NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced fare changes to cover losses caused by the Covid-19 impact on light rail usage.

In April 2020, during the almost complete cessation of human activity across NSW following the ‘Lockdown Laws’, Sydney’s public transport system was only operating at 20 per cent capacity. By June it crept back up to 45 per cent of its average 2 million passengers per day as coronavirus restrictions were eased.

Peak fare periods, where users pay a surplus to travel, have now been extended by three hours per day across Sydney’s public transport network, although fares have halved during off-peak period travel. Peak time is now 7am to 10am, and 3pm to 6.30pm.

NSW Labor’s Chris Minns, Shadow Minister for Transport and Corrections, was highly critical of the NSW Govt’s extension of peak period charging. “Using COVID-19 as an excuse to make commuters pay more is a disgrace,” he said. “What exactly does Gladys Berejiklian expect working people to do? Get up at four in the morning or start work at midday?”


City Hub’s previous reporting on the Light Rail:



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