Great challenges always bring greater opportunities.
In the next few decades, Australia has a golden opportunity to use a planned increase in rail industry investment to reinvent our advanced manufacturing sector.
At least $49 billion in new rail investment is planned in the next decade, with state governments moving forward with projects like the Melbourne Metro, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail and Perth METRONET.
Then there are projects under development, like Western Sydney Rail, the Inland Rail Link between Brisbane and Melbourne and, in the longer term, High Speed Rail between Brisbane and Melbourne via Sydney and Canberra.
Australia must put itself in a position to not only supply the steel for these railways, but to produce the rolling stock, rather than sourcing it offshore.
If we get the industry policy approach right, we can create new jobs while lifting economic growth.
We can also boost apprenticeships and improve the skills base which will propel Australian manufacturing forward for decades across a range of sectors.
To make this happen, we need intense collaboration between industry, governments, training providers and trade unions.
Australia needs a National Rail Industry Plan – a framework to ensure we extract maximum national dividends from growth in the rail sector.
States must co-ordinate procurement strategies and all levels of government must invest in research and innovation.
In the 21st century, there are two sure-fired ways to generate economic growth – investing in infrastructure to lift capacity and boost productivity, and investing in people through education and training.
A National Rail Industry Plan can address both.
It should specifically identify what industry requires in the training sector and set a path for governments to work together to deliver on those requirements.
Too often, debates about training become bogged down in arguments about whether it is the public sector or the private sector that is best placed to deliver skills to young people. The more important question is whether training meets the needs of industry.
Developing advanced manufacturing also requires genuine bipartisan political commitment over the long term.
The easy option for governments building new railways is to buy the rolling stock overseas, particularly if it is cheaper than building it here.
However, we need to understand that investing time and money to build the capacity of local manufacturing will not only produce trains, but is an investment in our nation, in our people and in our future.
A National Rail Plan should also harmonise industry regulations in areas like safety and advance ongoing work being led by Victoria toward harmonizing standards relating to bogies and glazing, which will make it easier to develop a national manufacturing network.
Recently the Senate’s Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee recommended the creation of a National Rail Manufacturing Plan, including a specific procurement policy.
While that was a positive development, it is truly heartening that the rail industry is also on the front foot.
The Australasian Railways Association recently produced an excellent document A National Rail Industry Plan for the Benefit of Australia, which points the way forward.
As well as addressing procurement issues like the Senate report, the ARA report also called for the advantage of rail to be seen in its full context.
It argued that rail not only moves people and freight, but can also address some of the broader economic and human challenges of our time.
For example, the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has reported that traffic congestion in our cities cost the Australian economy $16.5 billion in 2015.
Freight rail takes trucks off the road.
Passenger rail takes cars off the road.
As the ARA report notes, every passenger train service reduces the cost of congestion to the economy by up to $8500.
Rail is also considerably safer than road travel. It produces lower levels of carbon emissions.
It can also be a catalyst for regional economic development through projects like High Speed Rail.
Rail also allows people who do not own cars to access jobs and educational opportunities. While that is an equity measure, it has a huge economic benefit by lifting workforce participation.
Unfortunately, many policy makers addressing transport challenges ignore the full range of rail’s potential benefits.
In Sydney at the moment there is a proposal to extend the F6 to the city’s south via construction of a toll road.
Recent media reporting has established that when planners within the State Government were told to develop the toll road proposal, they were ordered not to test it against the option of rail.
This was in spite of the fact that completing the Maldon-Dombarton rail freight project, along with relatively minor upgrades to the Illawarra passenger line, would be cheaper and produce greater travel time reductions.
That is an absurd approach.
It is clear the NSW Government wants a toll road because it can produce a commercial investment return and could therefore be sold to the private sector.
But by taking this doctrinaire approach, the Government ignores the wider economic benefits of rail.
This is a great illustration of why Australia needs a National Rail Plan – one that not only addresses manufacturing industry policy, but also promotes rail investment in the full context of all of its economic benefits.
Anthony Albanese is the Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and Transport
This piece was first published in February-April edition of Track and Signal magazine on Monday, 5 February, 2018.