Railroad in motion at sunset.

By Damien White, Chief Executive Officer, Rail Industry Safety and Standards Board (RISSB)

The Australian rail industry is currently facing enormous challenges and opportunities. An unprecedented rail infrastructure pipeline totalling more than $150 billion brings with it challenges relating to capacity and associated skills shortages, and the opportunity to build new infrastructure with a focus on interoperability, decarbonisation and standardisation.

It is just over 150 years since the origin of Australia’s infamous “three gauges” issue which, by the time of World War II, resulted in no less than 13 break-of-gauge locations being identified in five Australian states. This lack of uniformity saddled the Australian rail industry and economy with decades of impact on productivity.

Likewise, whilst Australia’s state-based rail systems have enjoyed some level of integration for almost two decades, the legacy (and antiquated) safeworking systems and rules continue to be commonplace; manifesting themselves in enormous additional costs and risks which could be remedied if there was a greater integration of systems.

The current rail infrastructure pipeline provides the ideal opportunity to address these hurdles to productivity, climate change and safety – and there’s now a demonstrated will by industry and governments to take a more integrated and focused approach to interoperability and standardisation.

Unlike the challenging and ongoing work of trying to harmonise engineering standards and safeworking rules, building new infrastructure and having a focus on the interoperability of legacy operations should be a far easier task, if interoperability is a focus.

Even a very conservative estimate of the savings, just in construction, that a more harmonised approach can have are significant. But of more significance will be the decades of managing the cost and safety imposts of further disintegrated railway operations if an interoperability emphasis is not a key focus of these projects.

But, like of lot of things in life, there’s no “silver bullet”, however, a few simple but direct approaches could go a long way:

1. Continuing and reinforcing governments’ commitment to interoperability, which was first initiated back in the late 1990’s through the National Rail Summit, and has been realised through the establishment of the Defined Interstate Network (DIRN), the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), the National Transport Commission (NTC), and the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR).

Whilst these bodies have done much to inform and implement governments’ rail reform agenda, they weren’t established to ensure that interoperability objectives are included in new infrastructure projects.

2. The rail industry, specifically rail industry sectors, need to more clearly define their long-term vision and shorterterm objectives, particularly relating to interoperability and harmonisation requirements. Whilst there is a general government direction and emphasis regarding interoperability, more specific industry objectives (of a strategic nature) would better inform both government and industry in developing approaches to address such issues.

3. Continuing the good work of the NTC in establishing the National Rail Action Plan (NRAP). This approach has proven that a coordinated effort can bear fruit. An NRAP2 is required (and probably a three, four & five!).

4. One key opportunity for a real step-change in operational safety, productivity and service reliability is the introduction of computer-based railway safeworking systems. These systems are well established overseas and are in the process of being developed and implemented into Australia’s rail operating environments.

Without a well-coordinated approach to the design and development of these systems there is the very real potential to replicate the mistakes of our forefathers of 150 years ago by creating an electronic break-of-gauge. We don’t necessarily need only one system, but we do need an integration focus during the development of these systems.

5. Further to Point One, considering that many of the projects in the pipeline are funded by governments, there is the opportunity to require project proponents to have a bias towards governments’ interoperability objectives.

The Rail Industry Safety and Standards Board has supported the rail industry reform process over the past 19 years through the development of harmonised Standards, Codes of Practice, Guidelines, Rules and other products.

This work has generated significant safety and productivity improvements for industry and, in addition to continuing with this work, RISSB is now embracing the opportunity to raise the profile of industry’s interoperability work, especially in the context of the current pipeline of infrastructure projects.

Interoperability objectives need to continue to be visible and elevated to ensure that any new rail operations can be strategically planned and implemented to prevent repeating our industry’s historical legacy issues. Such an approach gives our industry and Australia the best chance of maximising the safety, economic and decarbonisation opportunities from this rail infrastructure investment.

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