Alstom driverless trains decision overturned by Federal court

Alstom Transport Australia has won a decision in the Federal court allowing it to import driverless trains free of tariffs.

On March 17, the Federal Court of Australia overturned a decision by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) that a driverless train can be put to the same use as a driver operated train.

The Federal court hearing took place on 24 February. The court ordered that the appeal by Alstom be allowed and the matter be remitted to the Tribunal for re-determination according to law. This allows Alstom to avoid the tariff of five per cent on rollingstock imported into Australia.

The AAT had affirmed a decision made by the Comptroller-General of Customs to refuse an application made by Alstom for a Tariff Concession Order (TCO).

A TCO can be sought by a company which wishes to import a product where there are no substitutable goods  manufactured in Australia. Alstom sought the TCO to covered driverless trains with seven further specifications.

Alstom said that as the use of the imported goods was “to transport passengers on a high capacity, high frequency, driverless metropolitan train line system”, there was not a substitutable product manufactured in Australia.

Customs and the AAT said Alstom’s use of the substitutable goods was too specific and the AAT held that driver operated versus driverless trains was an issue of how the use was performed, as the tribunal found that the relevant use was transportation of passengers by train.

The Full Federal Court disagreed with the finding of the AAT, writing that the AAT merely identified the use of a “passenger train”. 

Russell Wiese, customs and global trade partner at Hunt & Hunt Lawyers said Alstom sought a TCO over a particular type of passenger train.

“In this case, it was not just any train over which a TCO was sought. It was a driverless train with 7 further specifications,” Wiese said.

“As the AAT took too wide an approach, the matter has been sent back to the AAT to be reheard.”

The Court made note of the fact that Customs had screened the TCO application and did not reject the wording as being too specific.

Alstom was approached for comment but declined as the matter is ongoing.

COVID-19 stimulus package: what it means for businesses in rail

The federal government has announced a $17.6 billion economic plan to keep Australian businesses in business, so what does this mean for the rail sector?

As the entire global economy faces significant challenges posed by the spread of the coronavirus, stimulus packages have been implemented across the nation to support small and medium sized businesses.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said as part of the plan up to 6.5 million individuals and 3.5 million businesses would be directly supported by the package.

Caroline Wilkie, Australasian Railway Association (ARA) CEO said stimulus measures announced by the New Zealand, Australian commonwealth and state governments for small and medium enterprises, such as direct payments, asset write offs, apprentice wage subsidies, accelerated depreciation, and payroll tax exemptions will be of benefit to eligible businesses in the rail supply chain.

“However it is likely that additional government support will be necessary,” she said.

Similarly, Luke Wisbey manager – rail for civil engineering and plant hire company Brefni, noted that there is room for current stimulus measures to go further.

“The $17bn support package offered by the Federal Government is quite a significant sum and highlights the enormity of the situation facing business across all sectors including the rail industry,” said Wisbey.

“Although the package offered is substantial, the individual initiatives represent relatively small spends at a time when the economy faces mass bankruptcies. In order for businesses to survive the likely drops in revenue the crisis will generate, the government needs to be considering corporate level funding rather than ad hoc initiatives.”

Wilkie said passenger rail operators are reporting significant reductions in patronage and visible social distancing between customers on Australian and New Zealand rail networks.

At this stage, services have not been reduced. Other ARA members across the freight, contractor and supply chain are also reporting challenging conditions.

“ARA is uniting its members across all sectors of the industry to collectively address the COVID-19 situation and continues to work with our members to assess the industry impact and to engage with the government on areas where assistance can provide the most benefit,” Wilkie said.

What financial support is available?

The federal government will invest $6.7bn to boost tax-free cash flow for employers. The payment will provide cash flow support to businesses with a turnover of less than $50m that employ staff from the beginning of this year to June.

Up to $25,000 is available to help pay wages or for investment to protect against a downturn in activity.

Businesses with turnover less than $500m will be able to access a 15 month investment incentive by accelerating depreciation deductions. These businesses are also eligible for an expanded instant asset write-off for asset investments of up to $150,000. 

Similar to the relief provided following the bushfires, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) will provide administrative relief for certain tax obligations on a case-by-case basis. 

If you’re a quarterly pay as you go (PAYG) instalments payer you can vary your PAYG instalments on your activity statement for the March 2020 quarter. Wisbey noted that thresholds here limit the amount of available assistance,

“The 50 per cent allowance on PAYG capped at $25,000 limits the target pool and those companies still need to pay net wages and super. For SME businesses, support with wages are of most concern. We support the wage assistance initiative for apprentices and trainees.”

What about investment in my business?

From March 12, businesses with a turnover of less than $500m will be able to deduct 50 per cent of the cost of an eligible asset on installation, with existing depreciation rules applying to the balance of the asset cost.

A time-limited 15 month investment incentive to support business investment and economic growth over the short term, by accelerating depreciation deductions. 

How will my state support my business?

State governments across Australia have announced their own stimulus packages which includes state support for the waiver of payroll tax, fees and charges for businesses, and additional maintenance and cleaners of transport assets.  

In NSW, the state government has announced that more than $250m will be invested to employ additional cleaners of public infrastructure, including TfNSW’s external operators statewide. This is in addition to the $450m for the waiver of payroll tax for businesses with payrolls of up to $10m for three months and raising the threshold limit to $1m in 2020-21.

Thresholds here also exclude some businesses, highlighted Wisbey.

“The proposed NSW holiday on Payroll tax is good and should be extended until the end of the year at least. The threshold has also been lifted to $1m before it kicks in. However, this is an absolute tax on employment & the threshold should be north of $5m to be more effective.”

The Queensland government will create a new $500m loan facility, interest free for the first 12 months, to support businesses to keep Queenslanders in work and extend the coronavirus payroll tax deferral to all businesses across the state.

Western Australia’s state government stimulus package includes $114 million in measures to support Western Australian small and medium businesses.

Ben Wyatt, WA Treasurer said “the state government’s stimulus package works hand in glove with the commonwealth government, and ensures these additional measures complement the stimulus announced by the Prime Minister last week.”

Specific state and territory information and assistance for businesses can be found on the federal government’s website.

Rail operators are ramping up hygiene to combat COVID-19 transmission

Major Australian rail operators are helping authorities minimise the spread of COVID-19 by seriously ramping up hygiene and cleaning protocols.

Current advice from the Australian Department of Health is that everyone in the community should go about their business as usual, unless they have travelled from a country or region with a high or moderate risk of COVID-19, or have had contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus. There is no need to take actions like limiting movement on public transport.

State government agencies including Transport for NSW (TfNSW), Queensland Rail, Victoria Department of Transport (DoT), Transport Canberra, South Australian Public Transport Authority (SAPTA), Western Australia Public Transport Authority (PTA) are advising rail operators around the nation to take extra precautions and maintain good hygiene practices for both employees and passengers.

On Tuesday, March 17 the NSW government announced that part of the $2.3 billion economic stimulus, $250 million will be invested to employ additional cleaners of public infrastructure, which includes TfNSW’s external operators statewide.

Cleaning squads have been deployed across NSW trains, light rail, and the metro, particularly in high-traffic areas including Central, Town Hall, and Wynard.

TfNSW is encouraging customers to use Opal and contactless payments where possible, to further reduce chances of community spread and safeguard staff.

Andrew Constance, NSW Minister for Transport said while staff have boosted maintenance and cleaning efforts on the network in response to COVID-19, customers need to take extra precautions too.

“For those services that do not offer contactless payment, we are advising all frontline staff to wash their hands and use hand sanitiser to limit the spread of viruses,” he said.

Jeroen Weimar, head of transport services Victoria said we’ve all got a part to play in responding to the significant challenge presented by COVID-19.

A Victorian DoT spokesperson said all operators on the state’s network have been asked to activate their increased cleaning protocols which will be rolled out in the coming days.

The increased cleaning measures mean all carriages on Metro Trains and V/Line trains will undergo nightly sanitation, and Melbourne’s trams will undergo a deep clean before each service.

A TransLink spokesperson said it  is working behind the scenes in preparation and have plans in place to respond to any recommendations from Queensland Health.

Gold Coast trams have already moved to daily sanitised cleans, and Queensland Rail will boost dedicated cleaning staff, ramping up regular cleaning measures and beginning a new disinfecting process on South East Queensland commuter trains from Tuesday, March 17.

Queensland Rail has stated in an update that it has strict maintenance and cleanliness standards for its trains and stations to ensure the comfort and safety of customers and employees. 

SAPTA has also increased cleaning schedules and extra crew are being used across all modes with particular focus being given to hard surfaces such as handrails, validators and push buttons. 

Stephan Knoll, SA Minister for Transport and Infrastructure said the safety of passengers and staff remains the highest priority. 

“We are taking these additional measures to help protect South Australians who deliver and rely on public transport to get to work or go about their daily lives,” said Knoll. 

Transport Canberra said there have been no changes made to public transport, and all governments are working together to ensure a national approach.

“We are implementing an increased cleaning regime on our light rail vehicles as well as at high-traffic areas such as stops and interchanges,” Transport Canberra stated.

Chris Steel, ACT Minister for Transport said the state government has engaged Robson Environmental to undertake a study to make any further recommendations on Transport Canberra’s cleaning practices.

Rita Saffioti, WA Transport Minister said along with other state transport agencies, Transperth trains have transitioned from getting a basic daily clean each night to a full daily sanitation.

“So far there is no evidence of community transmission in WA, and the increased cleaning regime is intended to reduce the risk – as much as practical – against potential exposure,” Saffioti said.

Across the Tasman in New Zealand, Auckland Transport have been quick to adopt similar health and safety initiatives to those that have been put in place by Australian transport operators.

Auckland Transport (AT) advised in a statement that the NZ Ministry of Health has made it clear that there are no issues with people using trains.

“While many Aucklanders are working from home during this time of uncertainty, those continuing to use public transport should use good hygiene practices,” Auckland Transport stated.

Phil Goff, Auckland Mayor, said AT is well-prepared for a possible escalation of its COVID-19 response and has taken steps including installing new public hand sanitiser stations and has increased the cleaning of vehicles and facilities.

Shane Ellison, Auckland Transport chief executive, said AT are making sure information and advice from the NZ Ministry of Health on preventive measures is being supplied to its staff, operators, and contractors.

AT have created a COVID-19 update section on its website, as have most rail operators and state transport departments in Australia, to inform staff and passengers with the latest information.

Coin acknowledges continental rail journey

Australian rail has been commemorated in a special edition coin.

The Royal Australian Mint has issued a new, coloured 50 cent coin with the Indian Pacific detailed on the reverse of the 50 cent piece.

The coin celebrates 50 years of the train’s service, which connects two oceans and crosses a continent, travelling from Sydney to Perth.

Now operated by Journey Beyond, when the service was first launched on February 23, 1970, it was a joint operation between the Department of Railways New South Wales, South Australian Railways, Commonwealth Railways, and Western Australian Government Railways. In February 1993 Australian national took over the service.

Since its first service, the transcontinental service now carries roughly 80,000 passengers a year.

This is the second time the Royal Australian Mint has commemorated iconic Australian train journeys, releasing a commemorative coin for 90 years of The Ghan in 2019. These coins  acknowledge the status of such services, said Royal Australian Mint CEO, Ross MacDiarmid.

“The Royal Australian Mint is delighted to share this unique limited edition coin that celebrates another of Australia’s world famous railway journeys, a story which will resonate with the Australian public, train lovers, coin collectors and fans of the iconic Indian Pacific itself,” he said.

The possibility of having one service travel the 4,352km between Sydney and Perth was enabled by the east-west standard gauge project. Previously, travellers would have had to change trains six times, limiting the rail connectivity of Australia.

Journey Beyond’s chief commercial officer, Peter Egglestone, noted how the train journey showcases the best of what Australia has to offer.

“The Indian Pacific is a truly transcontinental rail adventure that journeys across the Nullarbor, through mountain ranges and rocky valleys and across arid deserts.  The inaugural journey nearly 50 years ago was a significant achievement, which has now developed into the all-inclusive guest experience today with regionally-inspired food and wine, world-class service and off train excursions.”

Light Rail

Light rail in Australia: An introduction

Light rail has quickly become one of Australia’s most exciting infrastructure platforms. A light rail development brings together disciplines like civil engineering, city planning, construction and rail engineering, with projects often involving several hundred contractors and sub-contractors – many coming from outside the rail sector.

Once popular throughout Australia, light rail vehicles – or trams – vanished from streets in all but two cities for over three decades.

However, a renaissance of light rail has, in recent years, seen new projects crop up all around the nation. With projects recently opened, in construction, or being planned in South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT, Rail Express takes a snapshot of the market in March 2019.

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