Rail industry news (Australia, New Zealand)

Time for a single national network

There has never been a better time to streamline passenger and freight rail in Australia to lift national productivity and decarbonise transport. 

The time is now to maximise the value of Australia’s rail network.  

As the world goes digital, and Australian governments invest $155 billion in rail modernisation over the next 15 years, the National Transport Commission (NTC) is working with all governments and industry, to maximise the productivity, safety, and environmental benefits of these investments. 

The nation’s Infrastructure and Transport Ministers, together with industry, have agreed to tackle the longstanding challenges and work towards developing a single, interoperable national rail network in Australia, linking major cities and ports across the country.  

As NTC Chair Carolyn Walsh recently told AusRAIL PLUS conference in Sydney, many people still did not realise that Australia does not have a single national railway. 

“We have eight different Rail Infrastructure Managers (RIMs) who all operate on what we are now terming the National Network for Interoperability,” she said. 

“If we are serious about decarbonising, if we want a larger share of freight onto rail, we need to max out the capacity of this rail network.”  

Highlighting the importance of rail to the nation’s future productivity, National Cabinet (the Prime Minister, Premiers and First Ministers) have prioritised advancing national rail interoperability as one of eight priorities, alongside addressing health and housing shortages. 

“I’m really pleased the NTC, working in concert with the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) and rail operators around the country, has managed to get interoperability on the National Cabinet agenda,” Walsh said. 

“We’ve now got to nail it in the next year or so, to work out exactly what needs to be done.” 

Improving interoperability and realising the benefits from Australia’s rail modernisation projects, depends on reducing differences across the nation’s networks so passenger and freight trains can move more seamlessly across the railway corridors connecting cities, regions and ports.  

Reducing differences will also create economies of scale, reducing costs for operators and governments, while supporting locally made rolling stock and local jobs, strengthening opportunities for Australian manufacturing, and helping Australia meet its net zero emission targets. 

A national approach 

The NTC is leading the rail reform on behalf of ministers through delivery of the National Rail Action Plan (NRAP). 

For the next four years, the focus is on advancing interoperability of the rail network in five priority areas. 

“Interoperability basically means that any train, no matter what network it’s going over, can operate at the highest level of safety and productive performance that that network offers,” Walsh said. 

“We’ve got eight different RIMs. If they all go off and introduce bespoke technologies and systems there will be a digital break of gauge as we move forward. And that’s what we want to avoid. 

“At the moment we don’t really have a market mechanism or regulatory mechanism to ensure Australian rail is treated like a single national network and that’s what the NTC is working to develop.” 

Through NRAP, the NTC is working with governments and the rail industry on a national approach to align new signalling and train control systems, with a focus on the eastern seaboard, and to reduce the regulatory and training burden on drivers and crew.  

Other priorities identified include streamlining rolling stock approval regimes and identifying workplace solutions to address key skills shortage. Underpinning much of this work will be a new national approach to the standards. 

Governments, rail operators, infrastructure managers and manufacturers have demonstrated a shared commitment to solving the interoperability challenge through the signing of a Memorandum of Cooperation for Interoperability. This agreement commits parties to consider national rail interoperability ahead of future investments in the rail network. 

Harmonising standards  

The history of rail in Australia has allowed different sets of standards, operating processes and working rules to flourish so long as individual network owners have met their own network obligations. This has led to train drivers operating across the country needing to know multiple rule books and ways of working and be skilled up and competent in up to seven different operating systems. 

“Imagine if you went from New South Wales to Victoria driving your car and a traffic light meant a different thing in Victoria than what it does in New South Wales,” Walsh said. 

“Reducing the interoperability burden from a driver, crew and maintenance perspective and harmonising rules is all about making sure we’ve got a more efficient and effective railway that allows individuals to be able to move their skills across networks and across the country without having to relearn everything about that new railway that they’re coming to.”  

To support productivity improvements across rail, the NTC is working with industry and governments to develop a national standards framework. 

Ministers have tasked the NTC with developing a three-tiered standards framework, with a small number of critical mandatory interoperability standards with performance-based outcomes to focus on three areas: streamlining digital train technology; ensuring a safe driver interface; and making it easier and more efficient to introduce modern rollingstock on to the network. 

There will be engagement with industry next year to inform the development of the first three interoperability standards, and a mechanism to ensure its adoption. 

The NTC is also partnering with the ARA, the Rail Industry Safety and Standards Board (RiSSB) and the Office of National Rail Industry Coordination (ONRIC) to inform the development of ‘model’ or best practice standards, to support local manufacturing and deliver wider industry benefits from a harmonised approach to standards development. 

Understanding what has blocked the adoption of best practice standards to date, will be the subject of joint research next year, to inform the development of the standards framework. 

The goal is to help reduce differences in rule books, harmonising operational procedures and competencies, and developing common rollingstock componentry standards to support local manufacturing. 

Initial work has begun through NRAP’s three year harmonisation plan, with standards produced including glass, seats, brakes and wheel sets. 

“We also have to provide incentives for freight operators to invest in the future with certainty. To know what sort of technology they need to be thinking about in terms of procuring rolling stock for the next 15 to 20 years,” Walsh said. 

Greater harmonisation of rolling stock componentry will drive supply chain efficiencies and create economies of scale that drive down costs and stimulate local manufacturing opportunities. Supporting local content and streamlining procurement will help reduce Australia’s reliance on overseas supply chains.  

The third tier of ‘local’ standards would allow for localised standards and streamlining training requirements.  

Aligning new signalling systems and train control technology 

The rollout of European Train Control Systems is underway along the eastern seaboard. The movement of freight and passengers along these rail lines play a role in supporting Australia’s economy.  

“Billions of dollars is being spent over the next 10-15 years upgrading to 21st century systems, ultimately we’ll be able to get rid of the line side signals because the trains will be able to work far more efficiently through a digitised, train control system,” Walsh said.  

“But if all those systems aren’t interoperable, if they can’t talk to each other and talk to the train in a seamless way, we won’t get the maximum benefit from that investment. The trains will be able to operate but they won’t get the safety and productivity benefits of the new system and we’ll never be able to pull out the line side signals that is the old technology.” 

The NTC is working with Commonwealth and state governments to make sure the new systems are rolled out in a consistent way and interoperability is factored in from the outset.  

Through its engagement with overseas rail organisations and a series of Future Rail Technology Forums, the NTC is learning from international experience. 

NTC Chief Executive Officer, Michael Hopkins, said in Europe, consistent rollout of signalling systems across networks had delivered cheaper production costs and better safety, as well as 30 per cent more capacity on existing infrastructure.

Reducing the burden on train drivers and crew 

There are more than 10 different signalling and train control systems used in Australia, each with its own rules, procedures and training. This puts significant regulatory, compliance and training burden on drivers and crew.  

The NTC is working with industry to better understand interoperability from a driver and crew perspective to make the experience of operating across multiple networks safer, simpler and more efficient. 

This includes the development of a single on-board interface and harmonisation across existing training, workplace and onboarding practices. 

Streamlining rolling stock approval regimes  

Getting approval from infrastructure managers to operate trains on their networks is a challenge for rail operators. When trains cross multiple networks, the challenges multiply.  

Each major RIM has their own unique acceptance process and specifications that rollingstock operators must follow to gain approval for their wagons and locomotives to operate on a particular network. This is causing: 

significant administrative burden; 

long and often unclear timeframes; and  

continued use of outdated/existing rolling stock.

“Operators have to comply with different applications and approval processes for each infrastructure manager, which hampers new investments and slows down the introduction of modern rolling stock,” Hopkins said.

“As rail grows, we have to reduce the time and cost of rolling stock approvals so that rail can continue to innovate and compete on a global level – leading to better safety and environmental outcomes.” 

The NTC is currently working through reform options with jurisdictions to improve the coordination of processes to streamline operator approvals. 

Creating workplace solutions 

A chronic skills shortage across the rail sector is expected to continue for another decade at least.  

A workforce gap analysis commissioned by the NTC and the ARA shows that unprecedented levels of investment in rail infrastructure and the rapid digitisation of the sector is driving demand for workers across a range of skillsets, from track workers and train drivers to engineers and other digital specific roles.  

To meet these skills shortfalls, rail needs to attract a younger and more diverse workforce. It also needs to make it easier for people to work across networks, so workers facing a lull in work in one jurisdiction can move to projects on other networks.  

Currently, the bespoke nature of training is trapping many workers in their jobs because their skills are not recognised across borders or jurisdictions.  

To reduce this gap, the NTC is improving the quality and consistency in skills training and harmonising worker accreditation. 

“We’re working closely with industry to develop a national blueprint for the mutual recognition of rail skills,” Hopkins said. 

“This will identify and align the core units of competency that are foundational to many key rail roles.” 

To help streamline and improve training, and encourage training providers to offer more courses for in-demand skillsets, the NTC has developed a pilot program for distributing nationally recognised courseware. 

Free courseware, including training and assessment materials for Cert IV Rail Network Control, has been made available and is now being used by 20 training organisations across Australia.  

Work is also being done to help organisations diversify and attract younger workers. 

Following the adage ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, the NTC’s National Rail Skills Hub has spoken with rail workers from across the country in some of the most in-demand roles. Profiles highlighting the many and varied jobs have been published along with training pathways showing how to access and progress a career in rail. 

To encourage collaboration, reduce duplication and maximise future training investments, critical skills training centres are being mapped and up-to-date data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research has been analysed to identify who’s training in specific skills, where they are being trained and who’s paying for it. Policy makers, training providers and industry can match this information with skills forecasts to ensure enough workers are being trained today to meet skills demands in the future.  

It has also conducted a gap analysis of the new skills required as digital technologies change the way people work. More than 40 per cent of current rail workers will be impacted by digitisation in their roles and 84 per cent more digitally skilled roles will be required by 2027 in key areas such as data security, systems development, data analytics and data communication. 

The NTC is working with governments and industry to set up a nationally recognised standard for future digital rail roles and provide learning pathways. 

A digital upskill pilot program targeting up to 100 learners, using CISCO’s Network Academy, is now underway. 

Funded by CISCO’s corporate social responsibility program, it will train worker cohorts identified by participating rail organisations. 

The program will provide a better understanding of the specific digital competencies rail requires. Data gathered will be used to develop a nationally recognised digital skills curricula and training courses specifically for rail workers. 

Supporting rail to play a bigger part in the national economy  

Rail in Australia is at a unique point. Its value as an efficient, sustainable and effective mode of transport has never been greater as it moves more people and goods around the country than ever before.  

The NRAP program with its focus on interoperability, harmonisation and skills, is about enabling Australia’s rail networks – passenger and freight – to run as a single, integrated railway system, maximising the benefits of new infrastructure and advanced technology that is being rolled out across the country.  

By creating a mechanism for reducing differences between networks we can avoid a repeat of history that led to different rail gauges in the 19th century and enable freight operators to move goods safely and seamlessly across cities, regions and ports, better supporting our growing economy and population.  

A more productive freight network will also lift rail’s mode share, reducing congestion, improving the safety of Australia’s transport system, and helping achieve Australia’s net zero emissions targets. 

There will be more opportunities for local manufacturers to grow scale both domestically and internationally, creating more local jobs, strengthening supply chains and lowering costs for new investments. 

A growing rail network means we also need to support the workers who keep it running. 

More harmonised rail training will allow workers to easily move across networks without the need to retrain. This will help cut the skills gap and make rail a more attractive career option. 

“The National Rail Action Plan is about unlocking rail’s potential so it can play a bigger role in our nation’s future,” Hopkins said. 

“Success will only be made possible through strong partnerships between governments and the entire rail industry who understand the challenges and recognise the opportunities. 

“We must work together and leverage this unique opportunity to deliver our rail system for the future.”