In this exclusive Q&A, John Holland’s executive general manager for rail, Steve Butcher, tells Rail Express about the shifting rail landscape, the benefits of an integrated offering, and the challenges facing the sector.
Rail Express (REX): How is the landscape shifting for operations and maintenance contractors in the rail sector?
Steve Butcher (SB): There is an unprecedented increase in the investment governments are making into mass transit systems across Australia. As a result, Australian rail operators are adapting to a level of demand that has been lacking for a generation.
The demand has been greatest for mass transit systems in urban centres, where population density has driven an increase in funding for rail projects along the east coast.
The other shift we are seeing is a renewed focus on the customer, which is something we thrive on.
People-centred transport systems are now what governments expect, and our performance is tied to how well we design and manage the customer experience. Governments are also increasingly introducing KPIs for operators, which has driven better customer outcomes.
The importance of integrating the customer experience across modes and ensuring comfort, safety and reliability is now part of rail planning from the design stage.
Public transport increasingly becoming a data business has also created a range of new opportunities for operators, such as linking to on-demand services, and sharing real-time information with customers about reliability and patronage on services.
REX: What are the challenges faced by John Holland and others in this space, and how is John Holland adjusting to these challenges?
SB: This is a really exciting time for the Australian rail industry – it is a time of great transformation, both in terms of massive physical infrastructure and technological developments to reduce congestion and improve the customer experience.
We are very lucky to be in the thick of some of the most significant rail projects in Australia’s history, but
it is important we keep pace with the sheer volume of work that is out there.
Our rail business now makes up 47 per cent of John Holland’s total revenue, and with more than $100 billion worth of projects in the Australasian rail pipeline, we expect the demand on our people to continue to grow.
Adjusting to the increase in work has meant a very consistent recruitment strategy, where we have seen our rail employee numbers increase by 31.6 per cent since December last year.
Separately, we are working hard to improve work-life balance for people across all John Holland projects. This includes a pilot of flexible working arrangements across different projects.
During a boom, we know that we are in fierce competition for the best people – so we need to ensure we are the best place to work, both to attract new hires and to retain our expert rail people.
Other challenges in rail relate to bringing existing infrastructure up to modern standards. This covers everything from ensuring stations and platforms are accessible, to upgrading track to improve speed and reliability – which forms the bulk of the work we perform on the Country Regional Network in NSW.
Making rail competitive with road travel means maximising the performance of existing networks, both for passengers and freight operators.
To keep pace with technological advancements in the operations and maintenance space, we are seeking to draw on our in-house capacity and expand the pool of companies we joint venture with.
John Holland has a specialised internal technology, engineering and knowledge business which we can draw upon to drive innovation for our customers.
The bulk of John Holland’s work on the Country Regional Network involves upgrading track to improve speed and reliability.
REX: John Holland had an integrated involvement throughout the design and delivery of Sydney Metro Northwest. What are the benefits of that to the contractor, and what are the benefits to the customer?
SB: The clearest benefit of an integrated offering is that you take a whole of life view of what you are delivering, which means better customer outcomes and better value for money. In projects like Sydney Metro and Canberra Metro, where we have been involved in design, construction, through to operations and maintenance we were able to ensure the project was delivered on time.
With major projects there are daily risks that need to be managed. The benefit of having a consistent partner through all phases of a project means that you have an ability to accelerate or adjust the program to accommodate any changes you need to make. It also means that the design and construction is delivered with decisions being made that are in the best interests of the asset long term, and with consideration being given to the long-term maintenance needs of the project.
REX: Tunnelling has been identified as a difficult element to properly cost ahead of time in major infrastructure projects. What are some lessons learned from recent tunnelling projects that John Holland has been involved in, and what can be done to minimise risk?
SB: All major construction projects present different challenges, and it is our job to manage them. We should never underestimate this, however, on the Sydney Metro Northwest tunnels – the largest railway tunnels ever built in Australia – we were able to deliver them two months ahead of schedule.
We are currently delivering the Sydney Metro City and Southwest tunnels under Sydney Harbour which are more than 70 per cent complete.
REX: With a lot of major rail projects planned, in procurement, or under construction around Australia, how does a diversified, major contractor like John Holland balance its ambitions and avoid getting stretched too thin?
SB: The volume of work in the Australian rail industry shows no signs of slowing down, with mega projects like the Sydney Metro West and Greater West on the horizon. In other industry booms, you can generally see a tapering off, but there is no end in sight to Australia’s current infrastructure boom.
Every prospect is carefully assessed against our current and future pipeline, to make sure we have the people and expertise to deliver the best results for our customers. We also make sure that we match the growth in our projects to the growth of our people.
Since December, our rail team has grown steadily, to keep up with the number of projects we are bidding and delivering on.
REX: The rail sector has repeatedly called for a more clear and adhered-to pipeline for major projects, coordinated between state and federal governments. Do you think this is a realistic goal? How would it help a company like John Holland serve the industry?
SB: A consistent major project pipeline is crucial for the long-term viability of major infrastructure companies.
We are in an unprecedented boom at the moment, with tens of billions being spent on new rail infrastructure all along the east coast of Australia. As a business, we have had to be smart about what we bid for, and just as importantly, what we don’t bid on.
The biggest benefit of a long-term major project pipeline is that it allows companies like John Holland to better plan careers for our people. Not having a clear timeline means that people might move cities to work on committed projects, without knowing that there is a major opportunity in their hometown right around the corner.
The biggest benefit of this to our customers is consistency in the people and expertise delivering major projects.
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