by Caroline Wilkie, CEO, Australasian Railway Association

As COVID-19 restrictions hit Australian supply chains, three quarters of rail businesses surveyed by the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) said they were looking to increase their use of local suppliers to support their operations.

That shift in focus was fast and necessary in changing times, but also represented a real opportunity for government and industry to work together to create a new future for rail innovation in Australia.

As one railway technology supplier observed in the development of the ARA’s report Finding the fast track for innovation in the Australasian rail industry, “…machine manufacturing is not going to come back unless we embrace more innovative manufacturing technologies”.

So how do we embrace that innovation focus to make the most of this moment in time, and secure a greater share of the $362 billion rail technology market?

Rail innovation around the world

The ARA’s report found Australia’s manufacturing strengths leant itself to the production of high value, high technology goods; an area where there is an increasing focus within the rail industry.

The benefits of a rail innovation culture could be significant; improving efficiency, productivity and the customer experience across the rail network – just look at the overseas experience.

In Germany, the adoption of building information modelling (BIM) to reduce energy use and maintenance led to significant cost savings.

On Berlin’s U’Bahn network, the application of ICT tools helped halve wait times. In the US, preventative maintenance technology such as wayside detectors, smart sensors and infrared lasers have reduced mainline equipment-caused accidents by 36 per cent over a decade.

That is a huge and important contribution to the safety of the network. In the UK, the Rail Sector Deal led to investments in data, digitisation and sustainability to deliver up to ÂŁ31 billion in benefits.

The establishment of the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) to bring together industry, government and academia has also provided a step change in innovation and new technologies in the local rail industry.

And that ambitious focus is paying off, with the industry attracting $2 in private sector investment for every dollar in government spending.

Australia’s progress

Here in Australia, our record of achievement has not been as significant, with a lack of long-term focus on research and innovation hampering our progress.

But there have still been clear successes in the use of technology and innovative equipment solutions to support better outcomes on the rail network.

One example is VicTrack’s new sensor arrays and use of artificial intelligence to predict adverse car and track conditions. The technology has improved safety and made it easier to direct maintenance efforts to where they are needed most.

In New South Wales, automation used on the Sydney Metro has boosted cost recovery when compared to the traditional rail network.

And while the common perception is that rail innovation perhaps is far more advanced elsewhere, there are already examples of Australian ingenuity being exported around the world.

The Monash Institute of Rail Technology has firmly established a global reputation for its work. Its condition monitoring technology improves the efficiency, safety and comfort of busy passenger rail lines, while extending the life of rail infrastructure.

So much so that the technology was implemented on the Hong Kong Metro in 2017 to support the delivery of services for 5.4 million people every week.

The question now is how does Australia make the most of the opportunity to gain a greater share of the global rail innovation market.

Adopting a culture of innovation

The first step is to make innovation a national priority. Just as the UK experience has shown, a clear and ambitious vision by government
is key to attracting private sector investment in the local innovation market.

That will require a longer-term focus on rail research and innovation funding, with a clearly defined pathway to commercialisation of new concepts developed in Australia.

A national focus on rail innovation will also be required, with a standardised approach to rail policy and procurement an essential part of ensuring the industry can gain the scale it needs to justify the investment in new research and technology.

Finally, we must be willing to adopt a culture of innovation at every level of the rail industry. That will require industry participants working together to try new approaches that achieve better outcomes.

The industry as a whole will also need to plan for digital technologies to continue to be further integrated into the network over time.

If we get these issues right, Australia will not only benefit from a faster, safer, more efficient rail network, but will also be able to export more of its talents to the world. That is an outcome we should all be striving for.

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