REGIONAL Rail Link (RRL) is Melbourne's first new major railway line in 80 years and one of the largest public transport infrastructure projects in Australia. The $A 4bn ($US 3.4bn) scheme will increase the frequency and reliability of services as well as connect growing communities to the railway network for the first time.

Work on the project began in 2009 and is due for completion this year. Construction has included the addition of new tracks which will link with the existing suburban network to provide an uninterrupted journey into the city from Victoria's major regional centres of Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo. Removing the bottlenecks caused by services sharing the same track will increase reliability and capacity for both suburban and regional rail passengers. New communities, such as those in the municipality of Wyndham, one of the fastest growing areas in Australia, will also have access to rail for the first time.

The Regional Rail Link Authority (RRLA) was established by the Victorian government to lead the project and manage the key stakeholder relationships. While closely connected to the state's transport department, the authority was sufficiently independent to operate like a construction company. RRLA's leadership team consequently approached the project through a "big picture" strategy which emphasised a centralised approach to strategic management, stakeholder relations, performance, and project legacy, and was a major factor in the project's success.

Melbourne-regional-railThe scope of works involved not only construction of track, but new stations, road and pedestrian bridges, excavation of railway cuttings and installation of a new signalling system. Over many years residential and commercial development had built up close to the existing rail corridor. This meant major works were required in a constrained environment with a high level of impact on the community.

From the start of the project it was understood that the right mix of expertise from both the public and private sectors was essential for succesful delivery. RRLA was staffed with rail and construction specialists, and was supported by staff from the transport department and the rail operators, as well as design, commercial and specialist consultants. The role of the authority entailed extensive interaction with both industry and government, so it was vital that the skills and experience recruited were highly proficient in both arenas.

As a result, an important philosophy was to co-locate with the RRL project team personnel from the Victorian government's Departments of Treasury and Premier & Cabinet, operators Metro Trains Melbourne (MTM) and V/Line, local councils and key consultants and advisors. This was invaluable in promoting a sense of common cause and fostering cohesion, cooperation and collaboration throughout the project.

There was also a strong focus on achieving the right balance between the involvement of the accredited rail operators (AROs) and industry capacity. Embedding RRLA representatives in work package teams provided a direct link with the authority, helping to align objectives and enhance cooperation. Integrating AROs and their representatives in the large work packages also enhanced collaboration, and placed network and customer impacts at the heart of strategic decision making. This was particularly important in planning for engineering possessions where train services were suspended to allow works to take place safely and efficiently.

Dividing the project into six work packages ensured sufficient expertise was available to deliver the different sections of the project, with each having their own challenges and complexities. The procurement model used a combination of design and construct (D&C) and alliance delivery models, involving the rail operators throughout all stages from procurement to delivery, with all linked through an interface deed embedded in the contracts. Splitting the task in this way meant the project attracted interest and competition from across the Australian construction industry and internationally.

Culture of collaboration

Whilst this procurement and delivery strategy had many benefits, it also created a risk in managing the work package interfaces. In response RRLA's leadership team developed a culture of collaboration, not competition, between the project partners. There was also continuous discussion and cooperation between the contractors, the AROs, state road authority VicRoads, local councils, government agencies and other stakeholders. All work package contractors were encouraged to engage with local businesses and the community, which included policies of buying locally, working with businesses to mitigate construction impacts, and engaging community members in one-on-one conversations.

Another area where strong leadership was crucial was in developing a culture where safety was first and foremost in the mind of all workers. RRLA took a consistent approach to safety culture, demonstrating commitment to continual improvement and leading by example. RRLA provided the same safety standards for its employees as it expected from other project participants. In addition safety awareness was maintained in the reporting of every incident, no matter how minor, and workshops were held to challenge and refine procedures. From a safety perspective, the project has performed well above rail industry standards, with a lost time injury frequency rate of just 0.6, and a total recordable injury frequency rate of 10.4.

Key to successful collaboration across the project was the Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) structure, enabled through the interface deed, which facilitated coordination and consistency in all work packages. These sub-committees were established across key areas of the project such as engineering, safety, communications and stakeholder relations, and facilitated coordinated information sharing and problem solving, as well as strengthened the culture of collaboration and accountability across the project.

The JCC made it possible to identify synergistic time or cost savings and provided a forum for discussion in relation to innovation and innovative thinking relevant to the delivery. It also encouraged parties to share lessons learned, while providing the authority with a thorough oversight of project progress.

The establishment of the RRL master programme was successful in bringing the work package programmes together and for identifying key, critical path interface milestones. The process of establishing the programme was also successful in aligning the work packages to target much earlier completion dates than some packages initially planned. The milestone definition process similarly worked well for the management of inter-work package milestones.

Stakeholder communication was a large focus of each project team, and RRLA itself. Communication was managed at multiple levels, and involved executives in contractor and client teams. A community reference group, including all councils and representatives provided a two-way channel of communication between the project and work packages and affected residents, businesses, and interest and industry groups. Open communication was critical to the project's success as it engendered confidence in the project and facilitated expedient resolution of many potential issues.

Strong stakeholder relations also allowed RRLA to implement engineering possessions in an unprecedented manner. These possessions involved closing lines on weekdays and replacing them with bus services which affected tens of thousands of passengers each day. The Regional Rail Link project was the first time a major rail project in Melbourne had carried out extended line closures outside weekends or the quieter Christmas-New Year period. As a result significant planning, communication and coordination was required for this to be a success. Smaller closures were also necessary - of the 92 possessions nine were extended closures - but two or three weeks of solid work was critical to meet the construction targets given the enormous volume of work required.

The longer-possession strategy reaped immense benefits in terms of work efficiency and employee safety. This in turn grew community tolerance for the disruption as people could see that progress was being made during the closures. Advanced notice and updates through various communication channels including print, online and social media kept passengers up-to-date with the changes to the services and the work as it progressed. A coordinated approach between RRLA and the operators meant that rail customers and the broader public received a consistent message, and that this information was accurate.

The collaborative approach to project development with stakeholders played a large part in actively facilitating the successful delivery of the project. All six work packages have delivered their requirements within the agreed timeframe, cost and without commercial disputes. Indeed the relationships forged and success achieved will leave a legacy for the state that should result in increased support for future projects.

The benefits of the project are already being felt. Bendigo and Ballarat trains are now running on dedicated tracks separate from suburban services from Sunshine through to Southern Cross station. Geelong services will begin using the brand new rail corridor through the outer western suburbs from April. Construction was completed eight months early, under budget, with a great safety outcome. The lessons learnt on Regional Rail Link will leave an important legacy that will guide the future delivery of other major infrastructure projects.