Breaking down the barriers of over regulation
One of the recurring themes at last month’s AusRAIL PLUS event held in Adelaide was that of the plethora of regulatory, technical and physical ‘breaks of gauge’ that continue to hinder the progress and productivity of the Australian rail industry.
By Mark Carter
So starting on a positive note, it has been great to see major progress in the last couple of weeks on two fronts in respect to greater harmonisation of the way in which the rail industry is regulated.
With today’s rail industry on the cusp of the deployment of new generation train protection and control systems (TPC), the industry has to be vigilant if it is to avoid the creation of a disastrous electronic version of the ‘break of gauge’.
In a significant move to prevent this, the Board of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) has approved the Train Protection and Control System Interoperability Framework which will provide a foundation for the vision, objectives, anticipated benefits and next steps on the journey towards TPC interoperability.
ARA director transport policy Brett Hughes says the approach taken is “typically Australian.”
“The Europeans have taken a standards based approach and the US has gone and chosen a particular technology. Both these approaches limit local solutions, innovation, new technologies and transitions to future technologies. Functional requirements can also be set too high or too low,” Hughes said.
“In Australia we can keep the necessary flexibility open while achieving the multitude of benefits that TPC interoperability affords. There is a challenge here in a achieving a balance between flexibility and certainty.”
Hughes says there is no better evidence of industry co-operation than the joint approach being made by RailCorp and ARTC on the interoperability of their respective ETCS/ATMS systems which was highlighted in a paper presented during AusRAIL.
This week’s decision by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to proceed with the establishment of a single national rail safety regulator is another significant and historic milestone in eliminating a major bureaucratic break of gauge that has plagued the industry.
COAG confirmed that the headquarters for the new national regulator will be located in South Australia and that a National Partnership agreement for the single national rail regulator will be considered in 2011. COAG also agreed to establish a strengthened national regulators’ panel to provide better harmonisation of rail safety regulation while the national regulator is being established.
The decision prompted ARA chief executive Brian Nye to say “the future of rail looks brighter than ever before, as we witness the end of the seven kingdoms of railway safety.”
With a population some 15 times greater than Australia, the United States has been able to work with just one regulator to cover its rail industry, while for some bizarre reason we have had to contend with seven.
It is planned that it will take another three years before the single regular actually becomes a reality. The state-based rail safety bureaucracy is a fairly recent creation that grew as a result of the privatisation and competition principles applied to the rail industry in the late 1990s.
The irony is that it appears that it will it take longer to dismantle this over regulation of the industry than it did to create it, although Nye at AusRAIL PLUS was very optimistic that the process could be accelerated to better the current 2012 deadline.
Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that everything is now solved and there are numerous breaks of gauge remaining across other jurisdictions that add significant costs and hinder the productivity of the rail industry.
Examples were provide at AusRAIL PLUS where state-based regulations differ significantly on matters such as driver only operation, fatigue management, signalling on interstate corridors, level crossing safety, environment protection and occupational health and safety.
One presenter put forward the view that if we were fortunate enough to be in a position tomorrow to build a world class, state-of-the-art, high-speed rail link between Sydney and Melbourne, it would still end up having to use two different signalling standards; one for New South Wales and one for Victoria.
While the majority of the historic problems related to track ‘break of gauge’ have been dealt with, we should not forget that there still remain breaks of track ownership and there are still cases around the country where “six and a half inches from destiny” means that freight that should be on rail remains carried by road.
During a CEOs forum at AusRAIL PLUS, manufacturers were also critical of the varying standards demanded states which they said can also create significant cost imposts. These included variations in crashworthiness standards through to requirements for different thicknesses of glass.
There are no doubt other industries around the nation that suffer from such instances of petty state interference, but I can think of none other than the rail industry that has to put up with what is often nothing more than immature nonsense in regard to overregulation of an industry.
While the decisions of recent weeks are indeed a very welcome shot in the arm for rail, let us not fool ourselves. We still have a long way to go in achieving sensible regulatory outcomes across the board for rail.