Held at the Adelaide Convention and Exhibition Centre on 22-23 November, the biggest fixture on the Australasian Railway Association calendar drew together many of rail’s most motivated and innovative influencers.
The mood in the exhibition hall was buoyant, with company spokespeople engaging in positive discussions with both existing and prospective clients.
In all, 25 countries or territories were represented: Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Malaysia, Norway, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States, along with Australia and New Zealand.
ARA CEO Danny Broad opened the conference by introducing a video message from federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester. Mr Chester sent his apologies, explaining that he was required to remain in Canberra that week while Parliament was sitting.
AusRAIL’s opening morning was dedicated to freight.
Economist Adrian Hart, senior manager of infrastructure and mining at BIS Shrapnel, said about half of the projects on Infrastructure Australia’s ‘high-priority list’ involved rail.
“We need to have all our assets working and in order,” Mr Hart said.
He said following the waning of demand for minerals, Australia was “starting to see the green shoots coming through of the first non-mining investment”.
“We had $3.6 billion in construction work in rail last financial year – about half the peak, which was $7.9b in 2011-12 – and we’re doing $1.5b in maintenance this year,” Mr Hart said. “Compare that to the roads industry where we consistency spend about $15b plus.”
However, rail had one of the strongest growth outlooks in construction, Mr Hart said.
“There’s another $5.2b in commencement start-ups and $6b in work stacked up still to be done.
“We’re moving from mining rail to urban centres, with passenger and freight rail taking over,” he said, giving Victoria’s level crossing removals, the Melbourne and Sydney metros and light rail on the Gold Coast and in Newcastle and Parramatta as examples.
“How are we going to do all this? he asked.
Mr Hart said Australia “should be taking advantage of low interest rates” to expand its investment in rail infrastructure.
“On the domestic side, the main risk is that we don’t do enough,” he said.
Mr Hart said much of the decision-making process was “going to be driven by political deadlines, not engineering ones”.
Chris Brooks, national transport manager for Woolworths, said from the supermarket chain’s perspective rail had “come a long way towards serving its customers”.
“Rail is an increasingly important mode in our network,” he said.
Mr Brooks said Woolworths moved 1.1 billion cartons every year, equivalent to 100,000 pallets per week involving more than 6000 heavy truck movements a day.
“Four per cent of that goes by rail – about 15pc of our spend.”
Rail was already the primary mode of transport for stock being sent north through Central Australia to Woolworths’ stores in and around Darwin and between Townsville and Cairns in Far North Queensland, he said, and the company was looking to have an increasing share of its east-coast freight task directed from roads back onto rail, as it had been until it was disrupted by track work in Sydney in 2007.
Australia was “almost a century away from where it should be” in terms of barcoding of inventory and assets, Maria Palazzolo, CEO of GS1 Australia, said, adding: “This is not rocket science.”
Ms Palazzolo said technology enabling the etching of barcodes directly onto parts enabled rail operators to more closely manage information on repairs and warranties.
Some of the early adopters included UGL, Queensland Rail, Fortescue Metals, OneSteel and Pandrol, she said.
“We think it’s absolutely critical for the industry to decide when this is going to happen.”
Marion Terrill, transport program director at the Grattan Institute, said in terms of rail planning “cities are where passengers and freight collide”.
Ms Terrill said politicians made “poor decisions with public money for electoral gain”, with the majority of rail funds having been spent in New South Wales and Queensland – Australia’s two most politically influential states.
She was followed to the lecturn by John Anderson AO, chair of the Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation and a former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure.
“You will not get good public policy out of a bad, truncated or silenced debate,” Mr Anderson said. “Transport and energy policy are two areas that are interlinked where we need to see a much, much higher-quality debate.”
Mr Anderson urged Australia to avoid ensnaring itself in “the trap of paralysis by analysis” on the subject of the route for Inland Rail.
“Leaving innovation in the hands of people whose circumstances are not always the same as ours the Europeans, the Americans, the Japanese, the Chinese – is not an option.”
He said Australia “should be striving to build infrastructure at the lowest possible price and ensure it’s accessed at the lowest possible price”.
The morning session concluded with a forum facilitated by Nicole Lockwood, chair of the Freight and Logistics Council of Western Australia.
John Fullerton, CEO of the Australian Rail Track Corporation; Mick Cronin, general manager of strategy and commercial of NSW Ports; Paul Larsen, CEO of Brookfield Rail; and Greg Pauline, managing director of Genesee & Wyoming Australia, discussed the need for capacity-building, the establishment of strategically positioned intermodal terminals and the preservation of land corridors to allow for future network expansion.
The afternoon’s technical streams were led by the Railway Technical Society of Australasia, the Rail Track Association Australia, the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers and rail suppliers.
On the second day, which was devoted largely to passenger rail, conference delegates viewed a video message from the federal Opposition’s spokesman on transport, Anthony Albanese. Like his fellow MP Mr Chester, Mr Albanese was in Canberra attending Parliament (where he had just reintroduced a private member’s high-speed rail bill.
Dr Michelle Zeibots, research director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, outlined work being carried out by her team on a real-time diagnostics tool designed to help alleviate station congestion in peak travel periods.
She said passengers were concerned by a number of questions: “Was I able to get to my destination on time? Did I know what was going on? Did I feel anxious during my journey?”
She said the practice of rail operators having trains bypass stops in order to arrive at the final station on time was short-sighted. “If you’re a customer and that tram you were hoping to catch has just gone by without stopping to pick you up then your perception of that service is not going to be particularly high.”
The day concluded with a gala dinner at which the result of the first Young Rail Professionals Pitching Competition was announced.
– ROSALEA RYAN