January 22, 2016

Political stakes high for Australia's railways as election looms

Written by  Danny Broad
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IN light of emerging global economic trends in competition and innovation, Australia's industries and business environment have undergone significant changes in the past seven years.

The resulting demise of the manufacturing industry, forced closure of power stations for economic reasons and a prolonged bust in the infrastructure space has thrown Australia a number of curve balls. The end of the mining construction boom has resulted in challenges for the entire country, with a number of business leaders purporting to labour force constraints and limited investments in all types of projects.

 Australia's rail sector has also suffered, particularly in freight as it underpins the success of so many market sectors.

Danny BroadThe situation has spurred a new wave of adaptation for Australia. Our businesses, our industries, and our governments (at all levels) have had to adapt to new processes, technologies and more importantly, new ways of thinking. Rail is no exception.

In the past 18 months the railfreight industry has transformed its situation from 'mining doom' to 'bulk boom' with Australia's railways now moving more bulk tonnage than ever before - almost 1.3 billion tonnes of bulk freight since 2013.

However, rail is no longer viewed solely as a long-distance, bulk transport provider. Short-haul railfreight has successfully improved its image, and is now playing an increasingly important role in moving goods between our ports and freight terminals.

On the passenger side, Australia's rail network is transporting more passengers per day than ever with over 600 million passengers using rail in the 2013-14 financial year­. Melbourne's light rail network - the world's largest - carried 177 million passengers in the same period.

Increased patronage is not simply attributable to population growth; passenger operators can take credit for working to improve their service and customer experience. Not only have they invested in infrastructure upgrades, increased surveillance technology, new trains and refurbishments, they have better-equipped their frontline staff to support customers. Passenger rail operators have also embraced social media interaction and smartphone technology to improve access to services, with this recent progression making rail a more attractive option for travellers.

While the rail sector is working hard to improve the current state of rail for Australia, support must undoubtedly come from the government to fund all areas. Rail is the most efficient, environmentally-friendly, safe and cost-effective mode of land transport, and it is rail that will help Australian governments meet the challenges of the future.

However, state governments shouldn't be expected to foot the bill on their own.

The federal government's renewed vision of more liveable, vibrant and connected cities is a source of encouragement for rail, and our industry has welcomed with open arms the change of focus to support urban rail projects to help deliver this vision. However, there is a need for the federal government to fund more urban rail projects around Australia to help alleviate crippling congestion to increase productivity for our growing nation.

Further to this, in order for Australia to truly progress, the Australian government must show further commitment to invest in rail projects that deliver economic benefits, including railfreight, the Inland Rail Project and the intermodal sector.

Australia's federal election is set to occur within the next 10 months. Hence, the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) launched its Federal Election 2016 strategy at its major industry conference, AusRail, in November.
The strategy is built around five key platforms for rail - jobs, production, cities, regional Australia and environment - and demonstrates the crucial role the sector can play in building a better future for Australia. Currently rail contributes over $A 4.2bn ($US 3.02bn) to the economy each year, with this figure set to grow significantly.

ARA launched its strategy to help our political leadership make informed decisions to achieve a more productive, more competitive, more liveable and more sustainable future through rail. Making major public policy decisions and building rail infrastructure are both long-term projects that will shape our country for decades to come. Rail is critical to our nation; our passenger rail services transport millions of people a day, and freight rail provides essential food, fibre and materials to Australia and the world. Rail needs, and deserves, the utmost support.

The Federal Election 2016 strategy was shaped by our membership and board in response to the number of critical issues facing the industry, including the development of a continuous pipeline of work. Our pipeline map provides political leaders and key decision makers with a visual representation of the rail industry's pipeline of projects from 2015 to 2035, highlighting the need for further project commitment across both the passenger and freight rail sectors.

In developing these documents, the association is positioning itself to advocate the rail sector's needs, benefits and priorities to Australia's political leaders before, during and beyond the 2016 election. Such a move is important for the future of all Australians, as well as the rail industry and to the much-awaited new era of Australian rail.

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