In the aftermath of COVID-19, there is a huge opportunity for the rail industry to support Australasia’s rebound, writes Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the ARA.
As COVID-19 struck, many industries wound down as travel restrictions and social distancing measures started to bite.
The much-discussed hibernation was a necessary reality for many, but for the rail industry the essential work of keeping our communities connected and economy moving ploughed on.
Public transport operators kept the trains running on time, and in many cases maintained their normal schedules to ensure those who needed to travel could maintain social distancing requirements.
The added work of additional cleaning and maintenance to keep their customers COVID safe was quickly implemented and continues as we return to a more normal way of life.
Throughout all the changes we’ve seen since this crisis began, dedicated teams that support the safe operation of our train network have been a saving grace for those that still needed to get to work, to care for family or simply buy essential supplies.
The rail freight industry also became an important part of keeping supply chains open as international borders closed.
The big swings in demand for household basics like toilet paper called for fast and reliable delivery to replenish supermarket shelves, and Australia’s freight operators helped meet that challenge throughout the worst of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the suppliers that maintain and operate the industry’s rollingstock, track and technology kept the network operating smoothly by continuing their essential work.
The outstanding efforts of the rail industry in difficult times has been of great benefit to the community and we thank the many people who have gone above and beyond in their roles to meet the challenges of this time.
But as the industry kept on moving, rail suppliers, contractors and freight operators were still feeling the impact of COVID-19.
A recent Australasian Railway Association (ARA) survey of 58 of its members found constraints on international shipments and falling customer spending were the biggest challenges they were experiencing in the face of the pandemic.
Concerned about the financial impact on their business, they worried the pipeline of government projects would slow – and some had already seen evidence of just that.
About half had deferred investments, putting workplace expansions and capital expenditure on hold as they repositioned their businesses to get through these unprecedented times.
But the industry showed its commitment to the long term, with only a relatively small number of respondents taking the tough decision to stand down staff or roll out redundancies.
Despite the challenges, the survey respondents were already planning for recovery and preparing their businesses for the growth that will eventually come.
Our members told us maintaining the current project pipeline was the single most important thing governments could do, followed by funding stimulus projects.
The ARA has acted on this feedback and has been engaging with federal and state governments on potential stimulus projects to support the rail industry.
ARA members also called for improved local content policies and procurement processes as more and more businesses considered a shift to using more local suppliers.
In fact, a staggering three quarters of those looking to make changes to their supply chain said they would seek more suppliers in Australia or their home state.
This is a huge opportunity for the rail industry and for Australian jobs.
The ARA’s tendering framework, released in May, supports the need for a nationally consistent procurement approach.
Making such a change was already considered vitally important before COVID-19, but now, taking that step could help the industry realise its ambition to support even more local content.
Strong local content policies and more uniform national standards would give suppliers the economies of scale they need to build sustainable businesses here in Australia and help the industry boost the resilience of its supply chains.
The success of the National Cabinet has shown that collaboration between the states can work to achieve consistent approaches.
That is exactly what we need right now.
The good news is the industry is ready for that recovery and expect it will come quickly when the time is right.
About a third of survey respondents told us they could be back to normal operations within a month once the impact of COVID-19 was over.
Most others said it would take them less than a year.
So as the many essential workers in the rail industry keep working through this most unusual year, there are signs of optimism for recovery on the other side of this event.
Getting the policy settings right to speed that process will be key to supporting a strong rebound for the benefit of all Australians.