Freight Rail, Passenger Rail

Learning the lessons of COVID-19 to build a future transportation network

If there was one phrase that was said in every session of AusRAIL Live & On Demand, it would be “never waste a good crisis” and in the final discussion of the three-day program, focus turned to exactly how rail would come out of 2020 and implement the lessons learnt during COVID-19.

Recognising that the rail industry had performed exceptionally well in ensuring that passenger services continued in the major metropolitan centres and freight moved unimpeded between the states should be the starting point for major reform, said John Fullerton, chair of the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy Freight Industry Reference Panel.

“Rail should hold their head up high with how they’ve dealt with 2020,” he said. “Keep the momentum going and learn from experiences of COVID-19 – having an integrated transport sector that uses the best mode for its activity is the jewel that we can achieve.”

With digital tools having been rolled out rapidly to provide customer information and enable staff to rapidly respond to changed working conditions, Mike Mrdak, senior strategic advisor L.E.K. Consulting, said that these lessons would be the foundation of future rail.

“We have got to continue to invest in digital infrastructure, rail is going to have to continue to put data at the centre of its operations,” he said.

While these changes may be driven by COVID-19, other ongoing forces will continue. As shown during the height of the pandemic, reducing traffic had an appreciable impact on air quality, and foregrounding the sustainability of rail will be essential, said level Crossing engineering manager at Metro Trains Melbourne, Amy Lezala.

“The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are at the forefront of discussions, it’s something that is becoming more part of general rhetoric and we need to take that into 2021,” she said.

The increased importance of data, and the visibility of data as a factor in decision making was also reinforced by the panel, whether for encouraging commuters to return to rail or informing investment in infrastructure to support a more efficient freight network. In addition, rail organisations will need to apply these lessons within their own organisations, in part to encourage more people to join the rail industry from other sectors, but also to make digital practices a part of everyday work culture.

While it is unclear what the future of rail in 2021 will look like, one glimpse came in the winner of the ARA’s Young Railway Professionals Pitching Competition, Timothy Lang, from Transport for NSW. Lang’s winning proposal was a gamification approach to encouraging commuters back onto public transport, with points and rewards delivered through a travel app to inspire teams and individuals to take the train.