Bringing together representatives from all facets of the rail industry, the National Rail Action Plan (NRAP) is setting a template for rail’s future.
On a chilly Adelaide day in August 2019, federal and state transport and infrastructure ministers assembled in Adelaide for the 11th meeting of the Transport and Infrastructure Council.
At the meeting, Danny Broad, then CEO of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) gave a heated speech outlining that without coordinated state and federal action, rail’s massive investment boom would be squandered, citing the dual challenges of a workforce shortage and the lack of common standards.
In comments made after the meeting closed, Broad castigated the laissez-faire approach to training.
“Governments can’t leave it to a nebulous training ‘market’ to resolve, because it’s just not working,” he said.
“These are national issues requiring a national approach, which reinforces the need for jurisdictions to work together to ensure consistency and alignment between jurisdictions.”
Also listening to Broad’s speech was the then-CEO of the Australian Airports Association Caroline Wilkie. Recalling the presentation, Wilkie was struck by the unanimity of the response.
“Over the last few years, ministers have been very keen to understand whether there’s any barriers, or indeed any opportunities, that we should be looking for on the back of this enormous infrastructure spend, particularly in transport. From that discussion, there emerged three key areas of focus.”
The three priority areas that would come out of the August meeting were skills and labour, common standards, and interoperability. The Transport and Infrastructure Council tasked the National Transport Commission to develop a National Rail Action Plan (NRAP), which, chair of the NTC Carolyn Walsh highlighted, built upon the current investment in the rail industry.
“The Rail Action Plan isn’t starting from scratch and saying nothing has happened before; it is drawing together the threads of a lot of things that have been happening over recent years like the development of Inland Rail, the ARTC’s investment in ATMS, Sydney Trains investment in Digital Systems, the Cross River Rail in Queensland.”
These investments were driven by the recognition at a political level that rail had to play a greater role in moving people and goods if Australia was going to improve productivity and reduce emissions.
“There’s been acknowledgement across governments for a number of years now about the freight task. There’s a strong sense that we’ve got a freight task that cannot be dealt with without investment in both roads and rail, but particularly rail for long-haul freight,” said Walsh.
“The growth of our metropolitan cities has been huge so we’ve seen much greater investment in public transport over the last 10-15 years which is terrific. Coupled with that is the recognition of the impact of climate change, and the importance of getting better environmental outcomes through our transport networks, both in terms of freight and passenger.”
What Broad and others had realised, and impressed upon ministers, was that the rail industry in Australia had an enormous opportunity, with all major capitals investing in significant modernisations of their rail network and interstate projects such as Inland Rail. However, this also represented the chance of a pitfall, and one that the Australian rail industry has been learning from for the past century and a half.
“The industry had collectively with government recognised the extent of that we’ve got to get all of those things right to make sure that we don’t create the break of gauge in the future,” said Walsh. “For those investments that are going to take the next 10 years to put in place and enable in-cab signalling for instance, how do we ensure we don’t get the future break of gauge, as those investments come together.”
Walsh noted that with a national pipeline of investment, individual rail infrastructure managers in each state were thinking about how to think about each network as a part of a national set of railways.
To make this happen, working groups for each focus area under the NRAP were formed, with Wilkie co-chairing the skills and labour group, Walsh co-chairing the interoperability group, and Deborah Spring, CEO of the Rail Industry Safety and Standards Board (RISSB), co-chairing the harmonisation group. Each group will also have a representative from industry as the other co-chair, including the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), the Victorian Department of Transport and the South Australian Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure. In addition, members of each working group will comprise representatives from each state as well as industry representatives from RISSB and the ARA.
With buy-in from the Commonwealth, states, and industry, Walsh noted that the tone of the conversations was energising.
“People are very keen to take advantage of the fact that we do have significant investment,” she said. “Often, we’re all talking about how to cut back, how to find efficiencies, and we are looking to find efficiencies, but this is an opportunity on the back of money and investment going into rail. I think we’ve hit a time where those three planks of industry, the standards setters, and the policy makers are all seeing this as an opportunity.”
FINDING THE NEXT GENERATION OF RAIL WORKERS
The issue that Broad had honed in on in his presentation in 2019 was that without a fundamental change to the way that rail skills and qualifications were taught, the rail industry would have a skills crisis. This assertion was supported by a report commissioned by the ARA and published in 2018, which assessed the skills pipeline for the rail sector. As Wilkie noted, the findings were clear.
“We don’t have the incoming workforce to meet the requirements of rail projects. ARA members right now don’t have enough people coming through in terms of apprentices, younger people, people with experience, or people moving into the sector.”
In addition to the lack of people, the 2018 ARA report found that qualifications in one state were not always recognised in another.
“The report identified a number of areas of improvement and action that were required and a lot of that was activity that really required a national approach,” said Wilkie. Walsh also noted that rail is not the only infrastructure sector experiencing a boom.
“There’s two elements of it, the first is whether we have the skills base in Australia generally to be able to deliver on this broad range of infrastructure projects – roads, rail, hospitals, and schools are all competing with each other for the best engineers, leading the cost of infrastructure to go up unless we manage the supply of skills. There’s also how to make rail attractive as an industry in a modern world? It can have a reputation as quite a 19th century technology, when actually with all these investments we’re moving to a 21st century technology, which is very attractive to people developing engineering, IT, and other skills.”
Currently, the lack of skilled workers coming into the rail sector has led to reports of companies poaching staff, or having to hire overseas, increasing costs.
“What we really need to be looking at is how do we get more people into the mix, how do we develop more people and bring more people in, because it is getting difficult to take people from one project to the other,” said Wilkie.
Already, as the working group has had early meetings, Wilkie can see a need for the clear definition of pathways for school students and graduates who want to work in the rail industry. In addition, the working group will be looking at how to enable ongoing training, whether delivered by TAFEs or private registered training organisations.
“Talking to members across the country, every state has shortages in a variety of areas,” said Wilkie. “I was speaking to someone the other day about driver shortages in Western Australia, I’ve spoken to other people about signallers. We’re talking about issues of how you train people on the job, how do you get school children interested in the career. It’s really starting from the beginning to end, and what COVID also throws into the mix is how do you get people that might have been in other sectors with transferrable skills into the rail sector as well.”
Wilkie also highlighted that as rail is identified as a sustainable mobility technology, encouraging investment, this can also be a way for the sector to promote rail to younger workers.
“The ARA and the industry need to do more to talk about the environmental credentials of rail. For the younger generation, a sector like ours that is so good in the sustainability arena and makes such a big difference in terms of environmental footprint is something that we need to promote.
“It’s also promoting diversity. It’s about talking to women about why rail would work for them in their life. The perception of the railway sector if you talk to most younger people it would be of an older sector, which just from going to AusRAIL we know that’s not true. It’s a dynamic industry with lots of diversity from younger and older people who have a lot to add and a lot to bring and I think it’s an exciting sector to be part of.”
SCALING UP THE AUSTRALIAN RAIL INDUSTRY
Australia’s rail industry has long been hampered by the legacies of federation, with each state having their own standards and regulations for railways, and this has led to the proliferation of standards for the component parts of railways and infrastructure.
Currently, it is estimated that there are more than 10 different standards for the thickness of glass required for a passenger train carriage. Not only does this limit the ability of rail suppliers from competing in different states and increases the cost of procurement, it prevents the Australian rail supply industry from competing for international contracts.
“Harmonisation is about how do we actually get common standards of the component parts of railways, so that we’re actually building scale in the capacity of the Australian industry to be able to tender for those projects,” said Walsh.
In addition, distinct standards mean staff are largely tied to one state or rail network, said Wilkie.
“We’re talking about the ability of different operators to be able to move from state to state, and that links back with the ability of staff to move between state.”
What the working group aims to do, is also reduce the cost of operating when freight trains, for example, have to traverse across state borders.
“Another example that I’m given is you’ll have an operator who is working in the freight area and they have a number of different folders in their cab that’s relevant to the rules and regulations on the network in Victoria and they go across to NSW and there’s a different set of rules,” said Wilkie. “It’s about making that consistent, so it makes for a better safety outcome but also a more efficient outcome as well.”
Deborah Spring, RISSB’s executive chair and CEO, is co-chairing the harmonisation working group with Ben Phyland, head of rollingstock development, network integration at the Victorian Department of Transport. Already, a number of standards have been harmonised across states through RISSB’s Priority Planning Process (PPP).
“Six standards in the harmonisation section were raised through the PPP forum so we were able to put them on our plan and in fact four of them started to progress while the NRAP was being finalised, which I think shows the importance of the plan and also how RISSB is a conduit for industry,” said Spring.
Three standards identified in the NRAP, common standards for glazing, bogies, and interior crashworthiness have already been completed, with standards for egress, energy storage, HVAC and emissions now being worked on. As Spring describes, the harmonisation process under the NRAP is an extension of RISSB’s current work program.
“When we’re looking at a standard, we look across the industry’s existing standards, both domestically and internationally, and use that as a starting point for the development of our standards,” said Spring. “We also call for development groups and then we have our five existing standing committees right now, who then have a governance layer on top of that. So, these standards are developed in collaboration with industry, drawing upon industry’s expertise, and looking internationally as well.”
Beyond individual standards for components, the NRAP also calls for common rules for safe work. These will be developed out of the National Rules Project that RISSB is finalising.
“The next step of that project is that we have taken the Australian Network Rules and Procedures (ANRP) and gone out to industry with a survey asking, ‘With the 62 rules here, which ones would add the most value to be nationally harmonised and which ones would be easy to harmonise?’ We came up with a matrix to try and identify those rules which will be high value and initially easy to implement. We then set up a national industry reference group of all the senior safety leaders and executives throughout the rail industry to oversee the progression of work,” said Spring.
What this process has developed is a template for the standardisation and harmonisation of rules across the Australian rail industry. While certain rules are identified in the NRAP, their harmonisation will be the first of a pipeline of rules, where RISSB will focus on harmonising those rules that bring value to the rail industry.
“A lot of people talk about harmonising and standardising, but our approach is it should be done when it’s adding value and not just for the sake of it,” said Spring.
A NEW NATIONAL NETWORK
Being able to move people and goods via rail from one side of Australia to the other has been a relatively recent phenomenon. While the Indian Pacific first ran from Sydney to Perth in 1970, making the journey smooth for freight has also been a major challenge, Spring points out.
“I started in National Rail when we took over the assets from the five states and at that point, to get a container from Brisbane to Perth, nothing talked to each other. Not only did we not have one gauge, we didn’t have standard procedures, we couldn’t track anything, we couldn’t book anything, even the tariff system, nothing worked,” said Spring. “We made that seamless and we’ve got to be able to make it seamless now where you can go across the country and it doesn’t make a difference which system you’re using – the critical information getting to the driver is right, timely, and accurate.”
Having this history in mind, current projects are aware of the need to ensure interoperability, said Walsh.
“We’re looking at new type of railways that have got interconnecting points. The ARTC railway joins with the Sydney Trains railway and they’re both investing in technologies for in-cab signalling, but they are different systems. That’s ok, because you’ve got a different rationale for those systems in different operating environments, but they’ve got to be able to talk to each other so that you’ve got a seamless operation and you’re getting the maximum efficiency and safety out of the system.”
To enable the various systems that rail infrastructure managers and operators are investing in to work with each other, the NRAP working group on interoperability will be identifying how to develop standard operating rules that enable control and communication systems to interact. Walsh, who is co-chairing the group with Simon Ormsby, group executive strategy at the ARTC, highlights that the solution will not be one size fits all.
“The goal does not need to be for all of the networks to have the same technology because there is a rationale for why you would have a different signalling system for long-haul freight across deserts compared to what you need in the city where you want to get every inch out of the headway.”
For example, with digital train control systems being rolled out simultaneously on the nation freight network and on the Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, and Brisbane networks, Walsh noted that there needs to be a national conversation about how these systems will work together.
“I don’t think that we’re looking at for ARTC to convince Sydney Trains that they should both use the ATMS system or Sydney Trains has to convince ARTC to use ETCS, but I do think we need to have those early conversations about how they talk to each other and what is the investment we need to make sure that all rollingstock has the capacity to operate over both of those systems.”
This convergence of technological and financial change, while one of a successive number of national waves of reform, is in part unique due to the collaboration of government and industry in Australia’s contemporary rail industry.
‘Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s it was all about investing in a standard gauge so that people didn’t have to get out of the train and change the train at Albury to continue on down to Melbourne,” said Walsh. “Then in the 90s it was all about competition policy and there was a lot of attention in government about separating above and below rail and getting competition into the freight industry. Then in the ‘00s it was all about getting a single national regulator and this next wave, as we get this investment, is about how do we make sure, in partnership with RISSB as the standards setter and the railways that adopt those standards and adapt them, that we’re now not going to get the future break of gauge.”
MAKING A LONG-TERM IMPACT
None of the NRAP co-chairs that spoke with Rail Express suggested that once the items listed on the plan were complete would the job of growing the workforce, harmonising standards or improving interoperability be finished. In fact, the NRAP hopes to set the groundwork for ongoing collaborative reform in the rail sector.
“The action plan is focusing on these three issues to begin with, but I think it’s legacy over time will be a way of thinking about the national rail system as a system that we need to make sure works collectively together,” said Walsh.
“In the past it’s happened bilaterally, you’ll get ARTC talking to Sydney Trains about the interface of trains into Sydney, but actually at the other end of the country you’ve got Arc as the infrastructure manager from Kalgoorlie to Perth so now we’re actually saying this has to be a national conversation and a multi-lateral conversation around some of these issues.”
For Wilkie, the reform’s significance is having the decision-makers working together.
“In each of those three working groups there’s a representative from each state government, so it means everyone is in the room, everyone is part of the conversation. That’s why I’m so positive about this whole process. It’s shown that the ministers take it seriously, we have all of the right people in the room and now it’s up to us to use this opportunity to really make effective change.”
As Spring highlights, the reform process is a model of what the co-regulatory environment of the rail industry can achieve and avoids the need for top-down mandating of standards or rules.
“My approach is if a standard is good and it adds value and it’s had wide consultation, then in a way industry should be wanting to adopt it. These self-mandated standards then really support the coregulatory environment.”
All-in-all, the work on the NRAP signals that rail’s time has come, said Walsh.
“I grew up in Yass in the 70s watching the Hume Highway be duplicated, and at the same time we weren’t seeing a railway having that same level of investment.
“Partly that was because there didn’t appear to be the drivers – economically, environmentally – to have that investment. I think that’s really shifted in the last 20 years. There is pressure on the infrastructure in terms of the demand, as well as responding to the environmental and safety concerns of the community.”