innovation

Find the fast track for innovation in the Australasian rail industry

When the Rail Manufacturing CRC closed its doors earlier this year, it spelled an end to dedicated rail innovation and technology funding in Australia.

While the loss has been felt deeply by the industry, the fact is the CRC’s significant gains were achieved against all odds.

A new report commissioned by the ARA has found rail innovation is in decline in Australia, and urgent changes are needed if the $155 billion in rail investment to come over the next 15 years is to deliver a truly modern, responsive and innovative rail network.

The report found rail patents are falling in a market where a lack of national focus and certainty, and wrongfooted procurement processes, have created a culture where innovation is simply not encouraged – and at times impossible to progress.

It has called for urgent action to establish rail innovation as a national priority and clearly articulated the need for a single Australian rail market that replaces state specific approaches with national local content policies.

As the federal government highlights the importance of manufacturing to help create Australia’s path out of recession, there is a real opportunity for Australian rail to embrace innovation and play a greater role in the $362 billion global rail technology market.

To do that, we need a national approach that provides certainty and longevity for the industry.

For all the benefits the Rail Manufacturing CRC delivered, the lack of continued funding beyond its term and relatively low level of public investment compared to international models saw the opportunity under-utilised.

Only 63 cents of private investment on national projects were secured for every $1 of CRC funding.

By contrast, the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network attracts $2 for every dollar of public funding, and Japan brings in 20 times its public funding from the private sector.

They achieve those results because the policy settings are right, the long term commitment is there and the focus on rail innovation recognises the invaluable role of both the public and private sectors working together.

A national approach, tied to clear commitments to invest in research, would help achieve that here in Australia.

The ARA has long advocated for a single Australian rail market to give the industry the scale it needs to invest, grow and innovate.

The report makes it clear that is more important than ever as we look to the future.

Current state procurement processes not only create inconsistent local content policies – making it hard to create true centres for innovation – but they focus on the up front capital costs in making their purchasing decisions.

That means innovations that requires investment up front in order to save time, money and boost efficiency over the life of a project or asset often don’t get to see the light of day.

Public procurement processes also err on the side of caution, calling for like-for-like replacement in many cases.

The private sector may have better, faster, or cheaper ways of delivering on requirements, but these conditions prevent them from being put forward.

Overall, these conditions create a risk averse culture that dampens the willingness of the sector to try new things.

And that is ultimately to our detriment.

Australia has great capability in the rail sector and could lead the world on rail innovation if the conditions were right.

The world-first use of autonomous heavy haul trains by the resources sector in the Pilbara is evidence of that.

Australia’s manufacturing sector features some of the industry’s brightest minds. But their big ideas are more likely to be sent overseas than developed here.

With only one per cent of rail patent submissions coming from Australia in 2019, the only way is up.

This next phase of rail investment is a chance to modernise and innovate like never before.

It is a chance to build new skills and capability in Australia to create jobs and opportunity for the next generation of rail workers.

All we need to do is take action and make rail innovation a priority for all of us.

Finding the fast track for innovation in the Australasian rail industry is available here.

Manufacturing in rail needs to seize opportunity of current pipeline: report

Australia has the opportunity to harness the current project pipeline to improve rail manufacturing productivity, a new report has found.

The report, Finding the fast track for innovation in the Australasian rail industry, authored by L.E.K. Consulting on behalf of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), highlights that rail innovation needs to be a national priority, and not fragmented between different state-based policies.

Caroline Wilkie, CEO of the ARA, said that the current investment in rail plus the renewed federal focus on manufacturing meant that the conditions were right for a rail manufacturing resurgence.

“The rail industry is expected to invest $155 billion in the next 15 years and we have to make that investment count,” Wilkie said.

“The world-first introduction of autonomous trains in the Pilbara region is just one example that shows Australia has the capability to lead the way on rail innovation.

“But the policy settings must be right to support innovation and technology adoption across the industry at a whole.”

Wilkie said that despite Australia having a large market for rail and the required network size, differing policies on local content in various states meant that the local manufacturing industry would struggle to compete.

“The international experience has shown that where governments lead a focus on rail innovation, private investment follows,” she said.

“We have the projects in the pipeline and we have the network scale to make rail innovation a real success.

“All we need now is for a true national focus to bring government and industry together to make the most of this opportunity.”

With the closure of the Rail Manufacturing CRC earlier in 2020, the Australian rail industry has lacked government funding for innovation specific to rail. The report found that Australia was also falling behind in comparison to other countries, with only one per cent of the world’s rail patents in 2019 coming from Australia.

In a report released at the beginning of this week, the Rail Manufacturing CRC reviewed projects that it had completed and highlighted the potential for further innovation.

“Australia’s research sector is world class and there exist many opportunities for the rail sector to utilise Australia’s R&D capabilities. With the closure of the Rail Manufacturing CRC, there will be a need for both government and industry to consider new models to support ongoing innovation,” said Stuart Thomson, CEO of the Rail Manufacturing CRC.

The report highlights four ongoing challenges for the rail industry. These include the need for national harmonisation, industry co-investment in R&D, the support for a culture of innovation, and the need to secure future funding for rail R&D.

“There exist significant opportunities for the sector to increase local manufacturing, develop supply chains and to train and educate a highly skilled workforce, however Government intervention and support will be required,” the report highlights.

Wilkie said that the industry was at a critical juncture.

“We run the real risk of being saddled with an inefficient, outdated rail network if we don’t support greater innovation and technology adoption to deliver the best possible outcomes for Australian rail users.”

Automated, continuous process for embedded rail track receives research funding

A $4 million Australian research project will look to automate the construction of embedded rail track (ERT), with the potential to apply the technology in the construction of heavy-haul and high-speed rail.

The project has received $1.5 million in funding through the federal government’s Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) grant scheme, as well as cash and in-kind contribution from the research partners.

Currently, ERT is only used in limited lengths due to the high cost and length of time that it takes to lay the concrete-embedded slab track. However, ERT is much safer than regular ballasted track, and with fewer components, needs less regular maintenance.

The University of Wollongong (UoW) is one of the project participants and project leader Philip Commins from UoW said the project would look to utilise advanced robotics to lay the track. Over the course of the project, the team from UoW will be looking into how this technology can be used to lay slab track with millimetre-level accuracy.

“Do you need multiple robots, or, is there another process to do this? Do you need material handling or is there another process where you remove material rather than trying to hold material, or add material in place? There’s a whole host of ideas that we’re going to be investigating to find which one works best and how do we then proceed to make this process robust in a harsh Australian environment,” said Commins.

With ERT laid in concrete, there is less room for error in construction than when construction ballasted track. In the current manual process, this need for accuracy means that track is laid in 50 metre segments. To overcome this, one area the project will explore will be how to continuously lay ERT.

“Ultimately we think that to drive down the cost the time of installation we want to do this in a continuous fashion,” said Commins. “We want to say, ‘We’re starting here today and we need to get to there by the end of today,’ and the machine ideally shouldn’t stop.”

To get to this goal, the research project will take two years to identify challenges, and find the hardware and software solutions required, as well as the needs for materials and logistics.

The project also involves the University of Technology Sydney, Downer, Embedded Rail Technology, and Antoun Civil.

collaborating

Collaboration to drive safer railways

ONRSR, RISSB, and ACRI are collaborating to provide the Australian rail industry with the best track worker safety technologies and systems.

In one of only two prosecutions carried out in the 2018-2019 year, the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) brought two charges against Sydney Trains after a track worker was killed while working on the network in 2016.

The rare use of the most severe enforcement tool, besides a revocation or suspension of accreditation, signalled to the industry just how serious the regulator was taking the issue of track worker safety.

CEO of ONRSR and Australia’s National Rail Safety Regulator Sue McCarrey said that currently, the Australian rail industry is not going in the right direction on track worker safety.

“Track worker safety is a continuing priority for us because some of the data and the information that we have says we’re not quite improving as much as we would like to.”

Focus areas are based on inspections, audits, and the compliance activities of ONRSR, and in the case of track worker safety, both the number of breaches and the rate of incidents per thousand of track kilometres has increased since 2015-2016.

“Our rail systems are getting busier and rail is under pressure to keep moving,” said McCarrey. “If you look at the work that’s happening right across the rail industry, whether in Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane, that puts additional pressure on the system, and with many more worksites happening, that does cause an increase in the statistics.”

While few incidents are fatal, with the 2016 Sydney Trains being one of the tragic few, what is frustrating to the regulator, said Peter Doggett, ONRSR chief operating officer, is that all are preventable.

“We see a large number of very significant near misses and when you go into the factors that contributed to them, every single one I’d argue is preventable with really simple changes and processes. It’s simple stuff that is breaking down and leading to these incidents.”

IMPLEMENTING GLOBAL BEST PRACTICE
The issue of track worker safety and more work going on within the rail corridor is not only an issue in Australia. According to McCarrey, there is a global push to put the best technology in the hands of rail maintenance workers and network managers to prevent track worker safety incidents.

“It’s an area of concern for rail right around the world. There’s a whole lot of work that’s being undertaken by individual rail companies in Australia and overseas looking at what are different systems, approaches, and, in particular, uses of technology that are being used to keep track workers safe.”

Seeing this work in action, ONRSR, are collaborating with the Rail industry Safety and Standards Board (RISSB), and have tasked the Australian Centre for Rail innovation (ARCI) to conduct a global survey to provide a baseline reference for Australian operators of global best practice when it comes to track worker safety.

By collaborating and combining insights from government, research bodies, and the rail industry, the project aims to provide useful information that can be applied straight away.

“The idea is that this research will help companies make decisions as to what is the best approach for them,” said McCarrey. “It’s different if you’re a Sydney Trains or a Melbourne Metro, or if you’re in the Pilbara and you’re in a fairly remote part of Australia or you’re the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) and your track goes across the Nullarbor. The approach has to be different but everybody’s out there looking at similar systems around the world.”

To be completed before the end of 2020, the research will be a result of collaborating and describe what systems and technology are available, what are the advantages and disadvantages, and where has the system been proven to work in different environments.

Andrew Meier, CEO of ACRI, describes the project as a proactive tool.

“It will be seeking engagement from across industry to find out about those trials that are not widely known and that are underway or have completed and what decisions have been made on those that are safe solutions. Being able to have that information available for industry is vitally important.”

The final report will be made up of a literature review as well as a scan of technologies on the horizon, informed by collaborating with industry through a survey as well as stakeholder workshops.

“ONRSR and RISSB are collaborating and want this to be a seminal tool for industry to use, to say this is what we know, and you can take this from here. It may well be that some of the things that are identified still need a level of development but perhaps someone will want to pick up that trial and take it further. It will give people a baseline of information to immediately know what they can do to keep their track workers safe,” said Meier.

“It’s a tool for now.”

THE REGULATORY APPROACH
With the adoption of new, safety critical technologies, McCarrey outlines that ONRSR and the National Rail Safety law allows rail operators to adopt new technology, for example in the adoption of driverless trains on the Sydney Metro network and on Rio Tinto’s network in the Pilbara.

“The law actually allows rail companies to introduce new technologies but what we do as the regulator is to have a look at their safety assurance of that,” said McCarrey. “We will work with the rail operator all the way through. We will be looking at where did the technology come from, where has it been used before, how have you tested it in your system, so that we can ultimately see that, so far as is reasonably practical, they have put all the assurance and a governance system in place to ensure that they believe that the system is safe.”

With the adoption of technology to improve track worker safety, the reduction in cost of GPS-based location technology, as well as real-time communication systems which can alert the driver and network operator, it is becoming more important than ever that rail operators look at what can be applied to their network or operations.

Meier also notes that ACRI is conducting research into the application of off-the-shelf robotics technology to remove people from potentially dangerous locations. However, McCarrey stresses that this research project and ONRSR more generally will not select any particular product or technology.

“We’ve got to be really careful as a regulator, we must remain independent, because different companies will implement different things,” she said.

“What the project will develop is a suite of possible solutions. It’s not going to pick a winner of some kind of technology but what it will produce is a table of technologies and techniques around track worker safety. This will cover at indicative costs, time frames for implementation and where they might be useful in different environments. It’s not going to say, ‘This is the best.’”

Instead, noted McCarrey, the research project will be a resource for industry.

Currently, the project is conducting desktop research and is seeking industry feedback. Companies seeking to be involved should contact ACRI.

ARA

ARA pushing for rail to take a greater share of Australia’s growing freight task

The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) will conduct a research program to grow rail’s share of freight, improve productivity in the sector, and increase rail freight infrastructure investment.

The project is part of the ARA’s strategic plan for rail freight and ports, released on June 25.

CEO of the ARA, Caroline Wilkie, said that there is the need for more freight to be carried by rail.

“A strong and resilient freight network makes the best use of all available modes of transport and there is certainly a case for greater use of rail in the future.”

To get more freight onto rail, the ARA’s rail freight and ports executive committee will promote the value of rail to policy and decision makers, provide-evidence based findings that can guide investment, and assist rail operators to improve their service offering.

“A truly national approach will be essential to make sure we get the most from rail investment and create stronger connections between our cities and regions,” said Wilkie.

The strategic plan outlines clear benefits to shifting freight to rail, noting that a one per cent improvement in freight productivity could generate $8-20 billion in savings for the national economy over 20 years.

In addition, one freight train can replace 110 trucks off roads, and rail is nine times safer than road freight.

Communicating these benefits will be key as Australia’s freight task is expected to grow.

“Our national freight task is expected to rise 35 per cent by 2040 and rail will play a critical part in meeting this demand,” said Wilkie.

Work by the ARA will progress in two phases. The first will identify issues and establish the benefits of rail freight. This will be done by reviewing Australia’s supply chain, to see why freight rail has lost mode share, and updating the 2017 Value of Rail Report to demonstrate the positives of rail.

The second phase will put specific guidance on how to get more freight onto rail into the hands of government and industry. The rail freight and ports executive committee will produce white papers for industry and for government to make the case for greater rail freight.

Alongside this work, the ARA will continue to advocate for rail through policy submissions and involvement in policy development.

rail manufacturing

Culture of innovation

Stuart Thomson, CEO and managing director of the Rail Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre shares how the industry has collaborated on innovation, research, and development across the past six years.

Formed in 2014, the Rail Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) has continued to work closely with the industry to assist the rail sector to adopt future digital technologies and address coming workforce needs.

Stuart Thomson, CEO and managing director of the Rail Manufacturing CRC said engagement from the rail sector, universities, and research institutions has been the key to collaborative research and development. Co- funded by the Commonwealth government, the Rail Manufacturing CRC provides a platform for the rail industry to work together to increase its capacity to innovate.

COLLABORATIVE FRAMEWORK
Thomson said what distinguishes the Rail Manufacturing CRC is its approach to cross- sectoral research. Bringing together the depth of research in universities and the applied knowledge of the rail industry, along with the support of the federal government, the Rail Manufacturing CRC can advance innovation across manufacturing, design and modelling. After six years in operation, the Rail Manufacturing CRC is coming to the end of its tenure on June 30 this year, with the Centre now working to complete its final projects.

“The Rail Manufacturing CRC has worked closely with the rail sector to deliver industry focused projects. During this time of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has been working to wrap up projects and manage financial and reporting requirements required before the Centre closes,” Thomson said.

Since 2014, the Rail Manufacturing CRC has been driving the development of products, technologies, and supply chain networks to enhance the competitiveness of Australia’s rail manufacturing industry. Thomson said that despite the closure of the Centre, the CRC has created a culture of innovation that will continue to grow.

“The industry has faced, and will continue to face, infrastructure and innovation challenges in Australia. By developing research projects and teaming up experts to support the industry, we are ensuring innovation meets industry’s needs and requirements to deliver the transformational change required in the rail sector,” Thomson said.

DEVELOPING AUSTRALIAN RAIL MANUFACTURING
Thomson said multinationals have invested in the programs run by the Rail Manufacturing CRC because there is technical expertise based in Australia’s heavy-haul and passenger rail experience that companies know can genuinely assist their businesses. The next challenge for the industry is making sure there’s a pipeline of work to enable investment in capital, research and development, and innovation.

Within the Australian rail sector, a great deal of focus in the last six years has been devoted to the development of condition-based monitoring systems and applications. Thomson said the Rail Manufacturing CRC has worked on a variety of condition-based monitoring projects, including the development of battery control systems that can extend maintenance cycles, the modelling of wheel bearing wear to determine the best maintenance practices, and developing weld modelling software to assist in improving the quality of welding in rail manufacture.

In collaboration with major rail operators, the Rail Manufacturing CRC has initiated projects to develop models to assess predictive maintenance of rail switches for an operator’s network. Predictive monitoring of rail infrastructure has also allowed the Centre to innovate the use of vision systems to identify maintenance needs on overhead wires and associated infrastructure.

The Rail Manufacturing CRC has worked with Downer and the University of Technology Sydney to develop a new technology called Dwell Track. The new innovation utilises 3D infra-red vision to measure passenger congestion on platforms. This information can be used to better understand passenger movement and to assist operators make decisions to limit congestion, alter platform designs, and – in the future – provide real time information to rail staff and passengers. The technology has since been tested in real time at a train station in an Australian capital city.

Thomson said many of the projects at the Rail Manufacturing CRC have a high probability of future commercial success. “We have six technologies that are likely to yield commercial returns in the near future, so that’s quite an achievement,” he said.

Thomson credits the input of the Centre’s PhD scholarship students who have contributed to research projects. Thomson noted they represent the next generation of highly skilled rail employees. “There is a great deal of discussion around future skills gaps and developing the next generation of rail employees. We anticipate that the vast majority of our rail postgraduates, 51 in total, will seek careers in the rail sector, especially if the sector increases local manufacturing post COVID-19.” Thomson said.

CONTINUING INDUSTRY-FOCUSED RESEARCH
Thomson wants Australia to maintain core national manufacturing and capabilities. “Particularly in Victoria there is a lot of movement happening around local manufacturing because there’s a requirement for at least 50 per cent of components in the rolling stock be produced in Victoria,” he said. Thomson believes the industry is working towards a harmonisation of standards and operations. Putting further policies and governance structures to support rail manufacturing in place will allow market growth and further investment in rail.

Further research and development in the rail sector will support the industry in adopting new technologies, building new local industries, and assisting the sector to increase productivity, safety, and sustainability. The Rail Manufacturing CRC expects its programs will benefit ongoing collaboration after the Centre closes its doors.

“A culture of collaboration has evolved over the past six years and will continue to develop. We’ve seen some incredible outcomes and, for example, I think over the next few years there will be a major interest in energy storage for rail,” Thomson said. The Centre has conducted research in energy storage control systems, and also in the battery area looking at lithium technologies for use in trains. Thomson said back-up systems, rolling stock, and below rail condition monitoring are a highly focused research area too.

“The growth the rail industry needs will most likely happen in the next few years,” Thomson said. Improvements in technology and data collection has aided the acceleration of innovation and Thomson believes automation across rail manufacturing and operations will be heightened. “The sector can expect to see increasing automation and the use of artificial intelligence to monitor and control systems and subsystems above and below rail,” he said.

“New skill sets and innovation from the Rail Manufacturing CRC programs has provided a springboard for industry to engage and collaborate,” said Thomson. “I think it’s a very exciting time for the future of Australia’s rail sector. The industry can expect to see advancements in technology that will be highly relevant for major train operations within the country, and will have global reach and applicability.”