ARA CEO Caroline Wilkie makes the case for procurement reform in rollingstock and signalling to assist infrastructure spending to stimulate the economy.
Governments in Australia have indicated that they will continue to fund committed infrastructure projects and have begun to bring projects forward to further stimulate the economy to support job growth and investment due to the impacts of COVID-19.
The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) commends this sensible approach. Infrastructure spending is in the long-term national interest, stimulating multiple parts of the economy, not just construction. Stimulating rail manufacturers and suppliers would be of immense benefit, particularly in regional Australia, where many are located.
However, there are other areas where governments could go further to identify and act on measures that could be introduced to support further cost savings and improve the delivery of new rail projects.
Reforms in the area of tendering and procurement would deliver better, faster, and cheaper projects in the rail sector. While this debate is not new within the infrastructure portfolio, the economic impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of pursuing efficiencies to ensure the rail infrastructure construction sector and rollingstock supply chain remain in a position to support the government’s infrastructure agenda and further stimulate the economy during
these difficult economic times.
Australia’s tendering practices are significantly costlier and more time consuming compared to international benchmarks. The tendering costs in Australia are estimated to be around 1-2 per cent of a project’s total cost, which are double the world benchmark of 0.5 per cent. Increased tender costs are immediately reflected in the project pricing, so reducing the costs of tendering should be important to all parties. High tender costs also increase the risk profile for tenderers and thereby tend to discourage participation.
The ARA proposes that significant benefits could be realised if improvements were made to current Australian industry procurement practices. Substantial improvements can be achieved through more streamlined and consistent tender processes that improve efficiencies for both suppliers and purchasers, from pre- qualification right through to contract award.
These changes would minimise the consumption of resources on redundant and non-productive outcomes, reduce procurement cycle times, further reducing costs and releasing industry capacity for delivery. Further, tendering on the basis of appropriate and more standardised contracting models and risk allocation frameworks for delivery will also reduce tender development and negotiation costs. Creating a consistent and well understood delivery environment will also lead to more successful project delivery outcomes.
The ARA commends the recent procurement-related initiative in NSW, embodied in the NSW government’s Action Plan: A 10-point commitment to the construction sector. The plan reduces the red tape for firms with a proven track record and supports streamlined prequalification schemes for contractors, tiered according to their size and capacity. It reviews existing pre-qualification schemes to ensure they focus on capacity and capability and do not impose unnecessary costs and administrative burdens on suppliers; and minimise the number of project-specific bidders that are required to generate and submit prior to the selection of a preferred tenderer.
The ARA believes that all states should adopt similar principles.
The benefits arising from any process optimisation and standardisation are multiplied when adopted across Australia’s procurement agencies. The ARA supports the convergence and the maximum practical standardisation of procurement practices on a national basis as an urgent and worthwhile objective.
Under the auspices of its Rail Industry Group, the ARA has convened an expert committee of suppliers, consultants, and other interested parties to make specific recommendations for improvement.
The Best Practice Guide to Rolling Stock and Signalling Tendering in the Australian Rail Industry analyses present deficiencies in current tendering frameworks that add unnecessary cost and complexity to already complex tender processes. It makes recommendations for improved practice by procuring agencies in eleven thematic areas.
The ARA has written to Transport and Infrastructure Council ministers with the Guide and is meeting officials to advocate for its implementation.
Procurement – similar to standards, specifications, and training – particularly in regard to rail systems, are areas where Australia has suffered due to its colonial legacy, with differing policy and arrangements in place throughout the six states acting as a deadweight against a national industry.
States, territories, and the federal government have demonstrated their ability to work collaboratively on issues of national significance where there is clear benefit to doing so during this pandemic. This cooperative model should be utilised for other key matters where federation has imposed challenges for industries, where significant savings can be achieved through harmonisation such as rail industry procurement.