Passengers returning to public transport in WA

Commuters are getting back on trains, buses, and ferries in Western Australia, with patronage back up to almost 80 per cent of pre COVID-19 levels.

With the state COVID-19 free apart from overseas arrivals, life in Western Australia is beginning to return to pre-COVID norms.

WA Transport Minister Rita Saffioti said that the state had one of the best returns to public transport of any jurisdiction around the world.

“Western Australians’ return to public transport is back to almost 80 per cent of pre-COVID levels – one of the most successful returns to public transport across the world.”

In the latest publicly available figures, there were 3.755 million train boardings on the Transperth system in August. This is five times the number of boardings in April, which saw the lowest number of boardings with 718,519, and almost 70 per cent of 2019 figures. Patronage levels in September and October have been higher.

Driving the strong growth in patronage is the return of school students, with almost 100 per cent of pre-COVID-19 patronage, and pensioners, who had 90 per cent of pre-COVID levels. Tertiary students, however, remained low, at 60 per cent, due to the possibility and uptake of studying online.

The Western Australian government hopes that these numbers can lead to a return to growth in overall patronage numbers. In 2018-2019 the system saw the first growth in total boardings since 2012-2013. With further connections coming online with the completion of Metronet projects, these numbers are likely to increase.

Perth in particular compares well to other state and international capitals. According to the International Association of Public Transport Sydney is only at 50 per cent of pre-COVID levels, while Brisbane is at 60 per cent and Auckland is at 70 per cent. The ongoing lockdown in Melbourne is leading to patronage figures at 5 to 10 per cent of 2019 levels.

face masks

Face masks to be mandatory on public transport across New Zealand

Auckland Transport has welcomed the New Zealand government’s mandating of face masks on public transport.

From Monday, August 31, face coverings will be required on all public transport for regions of New Zealand in alert level 2 or higher. Currently, all of New Zealand is at alert level 2 and the Auckland region is at alert level 3 until Sunday August 30, where it will return to alert level 2.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said the measures would be effective in limiting the spread of the virus.

“Wearing a face covering is an effective measure to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Everything we can do in the fight against this disease makes a difference, and I believe the mandatory wearing of masks on public transport is sensible given our recent experience.”

Auckland Transport has put out alerts for travellers on certain buses as passengers travelled while having COVID-19.

Auckland Transport has also taken other measures to ensure that public transport is still safe for travellers, including through cleaning, not taking cash, and keeping a two metre distance between travellers. Auckland Transport chief executive Shane Ellison said that AT HOP cards have also been used to track and contact close contacts of those who travelled with COVID-19.

“We have already stepped up the level of cleaning on all services with regular steam cleans now in place and now the Government’s decision to make face masks mandatory will only make public transport safer,” he said.

“Our customer research from the first weekend back in Alert Level 3 shows 88 per cent of people would support compulsory face masks on public transport.”

Goff said the wearing of face masks would benefit the community.

“We all have a responsibility to follow government health directives — for the good of ourselves, our families and older folk and our wider communities,” he said.

NZ rail continues during lockdown

Rail services have continued in New Zealand despite the reimposition of lockdown measures to control the spread of new cases of COVID-19.

Auckland is now in level 3 restrictions while the rest of the country is under level 2 restrictions after cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on Tuesday, August 11 with no known source of transmission.

In Auckland, rail services are continuing during the lockdown to their existing timetable for those who need to access local services and businesses and travel to work and school when that cannot be done at home. Physical distancing of two metres must be maintained on public transport.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff advised commuters to follow health guidelines.

“Maintain physical distancing, wear a mask when in public and follow good hygiene practices and we will get through this together.”

Auckland Transport will be cleaning trains regularly and will be making changes to timetables as needed.

KiwiRail chief executive Greg Miller shared Goff’s advice to wear face masks when using public transport.

“The health and safety of our staff, and the public, is the company’s main priority as we maintain essential services, just as we did successfully earlier this year.”

KiwiRail has suspended the TranzAlpine service that was to run over the weekend of August 15-16. The Capital Connection service between Wellington and Palmerston North will run as normal.

Freight services will continue with appropriate precautions instituted.

In Wellington, which is under level 2 restrictions, public transport is also continuing as normal.

General manager of Wellington transport operator Metlink Scott Gallacher emphasised the need for passengers to take care when travelling.

“We’re asking passengers to keep a 1-metre distance on board trains, buses and ferries and keep a 2-metres distance while waiting at bus stops, train stations and ferry wharfs,” he said.

“The government has made it clear that people should wear face masks where physical distancing is difficult and we encourage passengers to follow this advice on public transport. These measures will help keep passengers safe across the whole network.”

Metlink will accept cash payment, however Auckland Transport is only accepting payments via the AT HOP card.

Canberra COVID

“People need to travel”

In one of the most disruptive events to occur since World War Two, transport leaders around Australia highlight the role that rail has played in getting Australia through COVID-19.

On Friday, March 13, thousands of spectators were queueing outside the gates to the Formula One Grand Prix in Albert Park, Melbourne. The late summer sun was beat down on the spectators as they waited for two hours to find out whether they would be let in. Finally, organisers confirmed that the event could not go ahead because of the fear of an outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19). Extra trams were rapidly mobilised, and the crowds were herded onto public transport to take them back home, via the Melbourne CBD.

At the Major Transport Infrastructure Authority (MTIA) offices on Exhibition Street, director-general Corey Hannett was assessing the options for the state’s $70 billion of under- construction transport infrastructure spread across 119 major road and rail projects.

“I must admit, when the pandemic turned up in March, I think there were doubts that industry could work,” Hannett told Rail Express.

“At that time, we were looking right around the world at what was going on, and it was very clear that lots of countries were actually closing down.”

Indeed, other countries had entirely ceased all construction activity, except for projects specifically related to the COVID-19 response. In Ireland, almost €20bn ($32.57bn) worth of construction activity creased by March 28.

Unlike countries in Europe and Asia, at the time, the impact in Australia was relatively limited, with only 156 cases when Albert Park closed its gates. In Italy, deaths were already in the thousands.

“At the time, we really hadn’t had that massive impact from the COVID-19 infections that the rest of the world was experiencing, but it was fair to say we were very concerned that we had to make sure that we did things in a way that protected the workforce and the community,” said Hannett.

Across all of its sites, the MTIA and its delivery contractors put in place procedures to reduce the change of an outbreak at a construction site. Workers had to be spaced more the 1.5m apart, personal protective equipment was required, and extra hygiene measures were put in place. MTIA’s own staff moved to working from home and staggered shifts were enforced on work sites.

“Staggering when people start and finish toolbox meetings in the crib shed, getting extra crib sheds, getting extra cleaning in those crib sheds, getting an extra cleaning program of work across the whole sites,” lists Hannett.

All in all, roughly 18,000 people are employed to build road and rail projects under the MTIA umbrella across Melbourne and in regional Victoria. As of the end of June, there have been no significant disruptions to any of the construction programmes.

“I’m quite pleased to say so far so good, but we can only be as good as we are today and we need to keep that vigilance up and keep a heightened focus on making sure that we comply with the relevant rules to keep the community the workforce and ourselves safe.”

Hannett notes that while there has been a small loss in efficiency, the building program is continuing apace.

“In general, the program is in pretty good shape considering the pandemic which was forced upon us in March this year,” he said.

“I can’t imagine what the situation would be today if we had not had our 18,000 plus people not working.”

KEEPING THE COUNTRY MOVING
Canberrans had barely gotten the smell of bushfires out of their hair, clothing, and homes by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit. After a torrid summer, Canberrans were using the newly commissioned light rail more than ever, which, according to ACT Transport Minister Chris Steel, led to an unexpected windfall.

“Thankfully in February this year, just prior to the pandemic starting, we actually increased the frequency of light rail to help manage the crowding that we had seen because we had so many people wanting to use light rail in Canberra.”

Frequency in the peaks was increased, and the peak period was stretched to 9.30am in the morning and 6.30pm in the evening. This extra capacity meant that the light rail could keep running and ensure that those workers who did need to travel were able to get to their jobs and people were able to access essential services during the lockdown.

To ensure the service was safe, a rapid program of adaptation was rolled out.

“We stepped up hygiene measures across public transport, including light rail, and one of the measures on light rail was to have automatic opening of the doors which wasn’t always the case on light rail,” said Steel.

Across the network, an extra 1,300 hours of cleaning was being conducted per week, and regular cleaners were assisted by over 30 workers hired by Transport Canberra who were stood down from their roles in the wider transport industry.

In Canberra and across Australia, most transport authorities are still encouraging passengers to travel outside of peak periods to avoid crowding. At the same time, Steel and others are concerned that road congestion is rising faster than public transport levels with the ACT at 85 per cent of pre-COVID traffic levels but public transport at less than half.

“We don’t want to see congestion reach even higher levels than it was before the pandemic because people are not using public transport, so we do need to encourage people back at an appropriate time,” said Steel.

“We’ve had for now several months the national cabinet and state premiers and chief ministers very clearly indicate to the community that they should avoid public transport during peak times and that is still the message.

“We also need to have an equally strong message at the appropriate time to welcome people back onto public transport – come and use it, it’s good for our community, it’s good for your health, it reduces congestion and all of the benefits that it provides.”

In Sydney, Howard Collins, chief operations officer for Transport for NSW and former chief executive of Sydney Trains cannot see a future where a return to public transport does not occur in some form.

“I just look at the maths and say we’re currently carrying 600,000 journeys across the transport network, about 350,000 people every day at the moment, compared with 1.3 million on rail before COVID. Where are those people – even if half of them come back – where are they going to go? I can’t imagine them all cycling down George Street. I can’t imagine we’ll get the cars moving more than about 5km/h if they all jumped in their cars. So, rail will have to take on that capacity, but it may be in a different context in terms of how we operate our train service.”

Prior to COVID-19, capacity on Sydney Trains was almost reaching breaking point, particularly in the peaks. With a 73 per cent drop in patronage, Collins is looking at the recovery from COVID-19 as a potential for change in the way the network operates.

“I think patronage will change, permanently. COVID-19, at the end of the day is an issue that has come along that has been really tragic and has been challenging, but it may well be a warning for things happening in the future. So, things have to change but I do believe that public transport and particularly rail is going to still have a major role.”

Collins is sceptical that there will be a wholescale shift to alternative working arrangements, such as working from home.

“Many people have said ‘Oh I’ll never going to be going to office anymore. I’m going to be working from home and I’ll be doing it in a café or bar or whatever it is.’ I do think there’s this human nature of getting together and while we all say we’re coping with Teams and remote working there will be a resurgence of people wanting to cluster and get together, whether that’s socially or for work reasons no matter how good our Zoom or Teams structure is. People will be back, but it will be different.”

During the lockdown, Sydney Trains has increased services during the peak to cope with demand, as well as run extra light rail services. With an unclear future still ahead, to many, what this has demonstrated is the need for flexibility in time-tabling and capacity.

“We certainly need greater flexibility and if you look at Sydney Metro, boy they can switch on and off a flattening peak or an increased fleet just by the press of a button, and the trains pop out of their depot without any care or concern,” said Collins.

“But we know that people still need to travel within certain times. If tradies still sign on as they do every day in Sydney at 7 o’clock then we’re still going to get that massive tradie peak. If schools still operate in the time scale that tends to suit both their parents and teachers, you’re not going to see the flattening of the peak. We will certainly see others spreading the load – particularly office workers – but I think it’s going to be more resistant to change than perhaps some of the theorists believe when it comes to peak services.”

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Many have noted that COVID-19 is two crises. First, the health pandemic, and second, the economic crisis caused by the shutdown of businesses and the restrictions on movement and gathering. While testing, contact tracing, and medical care can limit the first crisis, there is more debate over how to grapple with the second.

Infrastructure spending has emerged as one way that governments are dealing with the economic crisis. Rail is one area of infrastructure that has been targeted with spending. Already, in Sydney, Metro Greater West, now known as Sydney Metro – Western Sydney Airport has had funding committed by both state and federal governments, to begin construction before the end of 2020. Approvals for Inland Rail have been fast- tracked. In Victoria, the Level Crossings Removal Project is ramping up and extra money is being spent on regional track and repairs to stations.

While some have argued that smaller infrastructure projects provide more benefits, according to Hannett, all projects should be seen as helping the wider economy.

“A project creates jobs, it boosts the economy, and it also has a significant economic benefit. The fact is. big or small. they do create jobs they do create economic benefit.”

Shadow Infrastructure Minister Catherine King highlighted that now is the time to invest in nation-building infrastructure.

“I think that one of the things that coronavirus crisis has shown us is that while we’ve had infrastructure projects and rail projects, we’ve sort of lacked any large scale, iconic infrastructure transport project,” she told Rail Express.

In May, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese reaffirmed the Labor Party’s commitment to high speed rail from Melbourne to Brisbane, via Sydney and Canberra. According to King, such a project goes well beyond reducing congestion on the air route between Melbourne and Sydney.

“One is the investment potential that it has, but also the nation building potential that it has, in terms of developing a much stronger sense of regional and decentralised regional towns from Melbourne from Sydney, all the way up to Brisbane, and the capacity and possibility of that as we grow as a nation.”

While COVID-19 has been a tragic event, the rail industry is beginning to emerge with a renewed focus on flexibility in operations and the nation-shaping role that rail infrastructure can have.

Face masks strongly encouraged on NSW public transport

Face masks are now encouraged for passengers on NSW public transport.

The change to strongly encouraging mask wearing came on Sunday, August 2, with NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant recommending masks be worn in indoor settings where physical distancing is hard to maintain, such as on public transport.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said that physical distancing is still the main goal.

“People should continue to maintain their physical distance – it is our most effective weapon. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t maintain your physical distance you should wear a mask,” she said.

“It is critical the community understands masks should be used in conjunction with other measures, and not as a standalone measure.”

People are still advised not to travel on public transport if they are sick and to maintain good hygiene.

While masks will not be enforced on public transport, Transport for NSW is strongly recommending passengers wear masks.

A Transport for NSW spokesperson also said that updated mask guidelines have been issued for staff.

“Transport for NSW has made face masks available for customer facing frontline staff and is strongly recommending these masks are used at work.”

While masks were made mandatory in Melbourne on July 22, no other Australian jurisdiction has enforced a similar measure. Social distancing is also not mandatory on public transport in NSW, however heavily encouraged and promoted through the “no dot, no spot” campaign.

CEO of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) Caroline Wilkie said that the rail industry thanked those who were wearing masks.

“Wearing a mask helps save lives and keeps our rail workers safe as well,” she said.

“We welcome the public support for those on the front line as they keep working to support the rest of us.”

Passenger volumes on NSW public transport were beginning to increase in May and June. Sydney Trains recorded a low of six million trips in April, while June recording 13,754,000 trips. Since the start of July, however, trips on the entire NSW public transport network have begun to decline again, by around 9 per cent.

Prior to COVID-19, in June 2019 32 million trips were taken on the Sydney Trains network.

Stage 4 lockdown restricts public transport, rail construction in Melbourne

As Victoria enters stage 4 restrictions due to the spread of COVID-19, metropolitan rail services and construction on major rail projects in Melbourne are being cut back.

While public transport is able to continue running, with Melbourne under a curfew from 8pm to 5am, Metro Trains services have been significantly reduced with trains running infrequently. Yarra Trams have stated that some services will run at up to 40 minute frequency. Public Transport Victoria stated that changes to services will be different each night.

All Night Network services, which covers services that run after midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, will be suspended while stage 4 restrictions are in place. The current restrictions only allow people to leave their homes between 8pm and 5am for work, medical care, and caregiving.

According to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews some staff will be redeployed.

“The Night Network will be suspended, and public transport services will be reduced during curfew hours. This will also allow us to redeploy more of our PSOs into our enforcement efforts.”

Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) spokesperson Daniel Bowen said that better communication of changes was needed.

“On Monday night details of drastic evening service cuts for trams and trains were only published as they took effect, giving travellers no time to plan ahead,” he said.

The PTUA recommended running trains to a Saturday timetable would be a better outcome, with less demand during the peaks.

“While the capacity will probably be sufficient to maintain physical distancing given the curfew and the shutdown of most workplaces, the big problem is the wait times. Imagine finishing your shift at 11pm and having to wait 90 minutes for your train home,” said Bowen.

Rail construction projects are also limited under the stage 4 restrictions. Major construction sites are limited to the minimum amount of people required for safety, and no more than 25 per cent of the normal workforce. Small scale construction is limited to a maximum of five people on site. Andrews said the government was reviewing major public projects.

“To date, we’ve almost halved the number of people onsite on some of our biggest government projects. Now we’re going to go through project by project, line by line to make sure they are reduced to the practical minimum number of workers.”

A Major Transport Infrastructure Authority (MTIA) spokesperson said that work would continue under the new restrictions.

“The MTIA is continuing to look at ways to further reduce the number of staff while allowing essential works to continue safely.”

On-site, MTIA staff are required to wear a mask, practice physical distancing and follow hygiene procedures and staggered shifts. A 70-person strong COVID Safety Team have been ensuring that all worksites comply, with multiple checks each day on every project.

Other rail businesses and organisations will largely be able to continue in line with their COVIDsafe plans. This includes passenger and freight operations, including rail yards, and transport support services.

Australasian Railway Association (ARA) CEO Caroline Wilkie said she welcomed the government’s recognition of rail’s essential role and noted that the restrictions struck the right balance between keeping businesses operating and addressing the spread of COVID-19.

“The rail industry has been working hard to keep essential services safely operating throughout 2020,” she said.

“From the train drivers on passenger and freight services to those working in stations, workshops and in the office, rail workers have made sure essential services are there for people who need them no matter what.”

Rail manufacturing businesses will also be able to remain operating, due to their role in supporting an essential service. Manufacturing businesses that support critical infrastructure public works are able to operate as per their COVIDsafe plan.

“Now more than ever we need the rail network to be as reliable and efficient as possible and these businesses are crucial to that effort,” said Wilkie.

National protocol to reduce cross-border freight confusion

A joint national protocol to enable smooth freight movement over closed borders has been agreed upon by state and territory governments and the Commonwealth.

The national Protocol for Domestic Border Controls – Freight Movements establishes a common set of agreements for freight operators that are transporting goods across state borders that have been closed due to coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks.

The national protocol outlines that rail crew will not be required to quarantine or self-isolate for two weeks, unless they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or were in close contact with a case.

Rail crew who are crossing borders or travelling through hotspots should be required to keep a record of close contacts and should minimise non-essential contacts.

Freight operators are encouraged to have a COVIDsafe workplan which will be mutually recognised by state and territory governments.

If further changes are necessary, state and territory governments are encouraged to consult with industry to understand the impact of potential changes.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack said that the protocol was the result of collaboration between government and industry.

“This is a great demonstration of how governments and industry are working together to ensure much-needed goods keep making their way to communities during the pandemic whilst keeping the health and safety of all Australians front and centre.”

Assistant Minister for Road Safety and Freight Transport Scott Buchholz said that with various and rapidly changing requirements, the protocol would enable the efficient operation of supply chains across Australia.

“We know this has been tough a time for the industry, with our freight operators often required to cross multiple internal borders in a single trip – facing the critical domestic border controls state and territory governments have had to operate to stem the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

“Aligning state and territory measures through this protocol will ensure smoother inter-state journeys for our freight operators and reduce delays in the supply chain.”

Australian Logistics Council (ALC) CEO Kirk Coningham said the organisation had been working to ensure that freight continues to move when border restrictions were put in place.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined just how vital efficient, safe and resilient supply chain operations are to Australia. Yet the closure of state borders and imposition of restrictions during the pandemic has added complexity and duplication of processes associated with freight transport,” said Coningham.
Interstate border closures were a feature of the first wave of COVID-19 shutdowns in March, with freight operators required to fill out arrival forms.

In early July, when NSW closed its border for the first time with Victoria due to the outbreak in Melbourne, permits were required for rail freight staff crossing the border. This initially also required rail staff to self-isolate, however this was then overturned.

Coningham said the new protocol will reduce future confusion.

“The protocol’s explicit acknowledgement that authorities should consult with industry to understand the effect and impacts of potential changes ahead of any new directions being been put place is significant. Adherence to this commitment will be essential to avoid some of the confusion that has been witnessed throughout the pandemic, as border requirements were changed with inadequate notice to industry,” he said.

“ALC is pleased that these principles are all enshrined in the protocol that has been agreed to today. We also welcome the protocol’s commitment to mutual recognition of COVIDsafe workplans developed in other jurisdictions, and to standardising the duration and conditions of border permits.”

Big reforms without a big price tag

CEO of the ALC Kirk Coningham outlines how governments could make significant reforms to unlock freight and logistics networks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an expensive experience for governments around the nation. Budgets that were in surplus or close to balance have been pushed firmly back into the red, and this will undoubtedly affect the policy choices governments make in the months and years to come.

Yet, significant reforms don’t have to be accompanied by a big spend. As governments turn their minds to policy actions needed to hasten the pace of Australia’s economic recovery, there is significant opportunity to achieve regulatory reforms that will be of lasting benefit to the freight and logistics sector.

Developing a set of National Planning Principles was a key action to emerge from the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy released last year. Establishing these presents us with an opportunity to achieve a better balance and ensure that freight movement is properly integrated as part of a more nationally consistent approach to planning.

A key outcome flowing from the establishment of National Planning Principles must be to enshrine distinct planning recognition for freight and logistics lands within all state and territory planning schemes.

Of course, these new National Planning Principles would be significantly strengthened by the development of a National Corridor Protection Strategy.

A consistent national approach to corridor protection is essential to achieving the planning reforms that the freight logistics industry needs. Effective corridor protection not only serves to prevent future community discord over land use; it can also deliver significant savings for taxpayers when it comes to the cost of building infrastructure.

Infrastructure Australia underscored this fact in 2017, when it found that close to $11 billion could be saved on land purchases and construction costs for seven future infrastructure priorities listed on the Infrastructure Priority List if swift action was taken to preserve relevant corridors.

Now is also an ideal time to pursue harmonisation of regulations that govern freight movement as it transits across to the continent.

To take one example, the 2018 Review of Rail Access Regimes, published by the then Department of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development noted there were roughly 150 different environmental regulations that rail operators must comply with when operating rollingstock between Perth and Brisbane.

Clearly, there are cost savings and other efficiencies to be gained by moving towards a single set of laws across jurisdictions governing environmental regulation, workplace health and safety, workers’ compensation, and drug and alcohol testing for the freight and logistics sector. The new-found spirit of cooperation engendered through the National Cabinet process should now be harnessed to secure that outcome.

In a constrained budgetary atmosphere such as that which is likely to endure for several years in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more important that governments drive though low-cost regulatory reforms that will still deliver tangible benefits to the freight and logistics sector, and to the wider community.

rail industry

Get policy settings right and rail will help lead recovery

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.

Freight industry shaping supply chain strategy

The federal Freight Industry Reference Panel has met for the first time to progress industry input into the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy.

According to panel chair John Fullerton, the work of the panel will cover all modes.

“Our advice to government will present a holistic, cross-network, multi-modal view and I look forward to working with these members on this critical goal.”

The panel, announced in June, will provide expertise on the delivery of the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy, the agenda for government and industry action in freight for the next 20 years. These actions include investment, improved supply chain efficiency, better planning, coordination, and regulation, and more precise freight location and performance data.

The plan has been developed to grapple with a 35 per cent growth in freight volume between 2018 and 2040 and the changing profile of freight to more urban freight. At the same time, freight productivity and costs have plateaued, reducing competitiveness of exports.

“As we act to respond to the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, we also need to maintain our focus on meeting our long-term freight challenges to support a bigger and more productive Australia and to secure a prosperous future for this critical industry,” said Fullerton.

“That’s why we’ll be working hard to ramp-up momentum on the strategy, with each of the panel members bringing a depth of knowledge and a range of experiences from across all freight modes and supply chains.”

Assistant Minister for Road Safety and Freight Transport Scott Buchholz said that the shared and collaborative experience of COVID-19 for the freight industry highlighted the importance of working across government and industry.

“The strategy is important now more than ever to support this critical industry and indeed the entire nation by driving real improvements to Australia’s freight productivity, because that is good for jobs and the economy,” he said.

“The panel has an important role driving ambition for the strategy and acting as a vital conduit for industry views and providing independent advice on progress made.

“I look forward to seeing the panel’s work progress as we continue working hard to implement this critical strategy to achieve better outcomes for our national freight supply chain.”