With a raft of rail infrastructure projects announced, in progress or on the horizon, does Australia have the skills and workforce to meet demand and deliver and operate these momentous assets?
Inland Rail – the proposed 1700-kilometre rail line – will provide a crucial and long-awaited freight link between Melbourne and Brisbane.
The Australian Government has already committed $9.3 billion through the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) to build the nationally significant rail project. It’s picking up even more speed with both the Victorian and New South Wales Governments signing bilateral agreements on the project this March and May, respectively.
The ARTC has stated that Inland Rail will create approximately 16,000 jobs at the peak of construction, with an additional 700 jobs once it’s operational.
However, considering 70 per cent of Inland Rail will comprise existing rail infrastructure – across different terrains and state borders – and will require 745,000 cubic metres of concrete and 262,000 tonnes of steel (equivalent to the steel in five Sydney Harbour Bridges) to build it, the question arises: do we have the skills – and labour – to deliver and operate such a complex and diverse project?
That question also applies to the myriad multimillion-dollar rail infrastructure projects currently in planning and construction phases and those undergoing upgrades. This includes the duplication of Sydney’s Port Botany Rail Line, upgrading the Beerburrum to Nambour Line in Queensland, the electrification of the Gawler line in Adelaide and the construction of a rail line to Monash University’s Clayton campus in Melbourne, to name a few.
Industry research is already identifying where there are skills shortages to deliver and operate these projects, and where the challenges and opportunities lay.
The 2017 Industry Reference Committee (IRC) Skills Forecast survey for the rail industry found that 83.8 per cent of employers have experienced a skills shortage in the 12 months from April 2017, with a shortage of train drivers and signalling technicians in particular.
Train controllers, trainers and assessors and track maintenance technicians are also grouped in here, with employers attributing shortages to not just skills shortages and an ageing workforce, but also the cost and time to achieve the required qualification.
The Rail IRC Skills Forecast 2017, which identifies the priority skill needs of the rail industry, based on a research and stakeholder consultation process conducted by Australian Industry Standards on behalf of the IRC, noted that the key reasons for the shortages were identified by industry as a lack of qualified personnel and an ageing workforce.
“Fifty-two per cent of the entire rail workforce is aged over 45 and strategies to attract new entrants to the rail industry would provide additional benefit if they also targeted a younger cohort as a priority”, the report reads.
According to the forecast, industry also identified the following skills, in order of priority, as the most important to the rail workforce within the next three to five years: electrical/signalling, work health and safety, repair/maintenance, driving/shunting and computer skills.
It asserted that because of advances in technology, increasing automation and other facets, such as continuously evolving communication technologies, are some of the main industry challenges and opportunities. As a result, it will be necessary for the rail workforce to receive new training that supports the skills required for these new technologies.
The four-year forecast provides just a snapshot of what industry has identified as the potential shortfalls in terms of skills and the challenges ahead, but other peak industry bodies are realising the task at hand as well.
“The skills across the various roles that are required to deliver rail infrastructure projects are expansive,” Mr. Broad says.
He says everything from design, systems engineering, construction, competency management, community engagement, business analytics, stakeholder management to safety assurance, sustainability, environmental assessors, and project managers come under this banner. “Specifically, technology, innovation, problem solving and customer service are integral to almost every role within the rail industry,” he adds.
The complexities of rail project delivery and operation are further complicated by the range of skills sets required, which Mr. Broad says are in high demand.
“There is strong and ongoing demand for rail skills given the significant investment by Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments in rail infrastructure, estimated at close to $100 billion over the next fifteen years,” he says. “The greatest challenge for the rail industry at the moment is to ensure that we have the skills and people to cater for the growth in the rail project pipeline.
“The Australian rail industry is already experiencing skills shortages which is leading to wage increases adding further pressure on project delivery. Solutions require a multi-pronged, national and collaborative approach between industry and government to deliver fit for purpose training and support, combined with improved access to pathways into the rail industry.”
Mr. Broad says government and industry are making positive steps to address the skills challenges, citing the Victorian Government’s 2018/19 Budget, which includes $172 million to make priority TAFE and pre-apprenticeship courses free. This includes Certificate IV/Diploma in Building and Construction, Certificate III in Civil Engineering and Certificate IV in Engineering.
Of the 30 free priority courses covered in the investment, seven are directly linked to the rail sector.
“It is evident that the Victorian Government recognises that the skills shortage issue is a real issue,” Mr. Broad says. “The Victorian Government has also committed $49.8 million towards the Head Start Apprenticeships and Traineeships program and $109 million to assist students make the right career choices earlier.
“What this shows is that the Victorian Government is willing to attract more apprentices into key trades to support the huge number of projects underway in Victoria and help growth in priority sectors, including rail infrastructure and manufacturing.”
The ARA has also commenced a major project to better understand the skills needs for the rail project pipeline of the next 10 years and identify the capability gaps that need to be addressed.
“The ARA is on the front foot on this issue. We are engaging with BIS Oxford Economics to conduct a skills gap analysis that will identify an action plan to close this gap,” Mr. Broad adds.
While different facts of the rail industry are seeing skills shortages in certain areas, Engineers Australia National Manager of Public Affairs Jonathan Russell says this isn’t necessarily so for the engineering profession generally. However, there are still challenges in delivering these major rail projects given the growth the rail sector is experiencing.
“Quite a large number of rail work in Australia is coming up or has begun. From data we’ve analysed, we can see quite a lot of demand growth for engineers working in the transport and infrastructure sectors,” he says.
He exemplifies the Melbourne Airport Rail Link, and the Federal Government’s $5 billion commitment to the project, saying that there are projects you can invest in, but they need to correlate with Infrastructure Australia’s national plan and priority list, which the Melbourne Airport Rail Link isn’t included in.
“Before governments make decisions they need to look at where projects fit within national programs of work to help ensure that we will have the engineering labour to deliver it,” Mr. Russell asserts.
A key solution to ensuring we have the labour workforce to build these projects – and don’t end up with a skilled workforce and no projects to build – is to stagger the project work, he adds.
“In looking at the question of a skills shortage when talking about engineers in general, we wouldn’t say there’s an overall skills shortage,” Mr. Russell says.
However, he asserts there are specialised areas of railway engineering and regional rail infrastructure projects that have their challenges.
“With rail and transport infrastructure work, a lot is taking place in non-metropolitan areas. Anything that’s done outside of those cities and metropolitan areas, may have trouble finding a local workforce,” he says.
“The companies that run those projects just need to be aware of where they find those skilled engineering professionals and provide incentives for them to relocate.”
Mr. Russell says the engineers most likely to be available for these types of projects are recent migrants. “They’re heavily concentrated in capital cities and also have the least amount of ties. I would encourage companies to shift their mindsets and look for recent migrant engineering professionals and incentivise the opportunities for them,” he adds.
“Skilled migrants and female engineers are also the categories of engineers most available and where there is more talent for companies to source from.”
Likewise, Mr. Russell says continual investment in junior engineers and graduates is how the rail sector can ensure the workforce is skilled and capable of delivering the projects on the horizon.
“Smart companies invest in graduates, even when conditions aren’t so good,” he says. “Yes, there is need for encouraging engineering candidates into the industry with a need for a little bit of a top-up from skilled migrants too – it’s in the national interest that we continue to invest in engineers.”
For Distinguished Professor Buddhima Indraratna, from the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences, there is a necessity to improve how the rail infrastructure on projects, such as Inland Rail, is constructed and maintained, especially with evolving requirements and demand from industry.
“Industry wants increasingly higher axle loads, wanting them to go faster as well. We can’t do that unless we modify and upgrade our existing rail tracks,” Prof. Indraratna says.
“Iron ore is needing to be transported over hundreds of kilometres on trains more than three kilometres long and usually weighing over 60,000 tonnes. Moving from source to port, there are completely different tonnages, requirements and ground and soil conditions in different areas,” he says. “The mining companies are pushing for high productivity – Western Australia is already doing 40-tonne axle loads and in New South Wales most loads are reaching 30 tonnes, and even we are very cautious about that.
“The overall thing is the fact that the movement needs to occur to the same acceptable specifications, with several different impacts occurring simultaneously on the rail line and on completely different ground conditions.”
The problem, Prof. Indraratna says, is that the tracks themselves are built for different projects and purposes that may change from time to time, and a blanket approach cannot be taken to upgrade them all to suit the needs of the industry to move bigger and heavier loads.
Erodible and unstable soils, compressible coastal clays, landslide debris, the frequency of rainfall – different climate impacts, depending on the area, can have massive affects on the rail line, and are all things that need to be taken into account in railway engineering when increasing axle loads, Prof. Indraratna says.
“We also have large areas of low lying floodplains, which are very boggy,” he adds.
“There is far too much traditional empiricism in rail engineering, we’ve got to think of different ways to do it and approach it differently,” he says.
A major issue in addressing these technological challenges Prof. Indraratna says is a lack of engineering professionals focusing specifically on rail track engineering and, in particular, these crucial geotechnical facets of rail construction.
“A large number of graduates in this area go back to other industries or go back to their home countries. In the past, a lot of our students have gone onto jobs in other areas of engineering,” he says.
“Once they graduate and have a PhD they’ll receive offers with attractive salaries in other areas – multibillion-dollar mining companies, for instance.”
The challenge begins at the tertiary education level, which Prof. Indraratna says can hinder the number of graduates considering and pursuing a career in railway engineering.
“Universities in Australia do not teach rail engineering for undergraduates, we teach everything else in engineering but not rail.
“Unfortunately, a lot of graduates aren’t attracted to it either. Railway engineering may not be ‘sexy’ enough, so we need to attract other skills, but build the excitement and the challenge around it.
“Our students come from high school and see all the big building, bridges, dams, tunnels, multilane highways, etc., and are really impressed, but how many high school students look at railways tracks and have the same reaction?”
Prof. Indraratna says railway track construction and engineering isn’t so different to the principles used in pavement or infrastructure engineering, given the strong emphasis on geotechnical aspects.
“Students have no idea about these elements and appreciate how low these tracks can be.
“Even across floodplains they require so much below-ground engineering and involve so many complexities and variables, which is very exciting and challenging for construction,” he says.
“Because we don’t teach our students enough how technical it is to design rail for high-axle loads, and at high speeds, they don’t have that challenge or excitement in mind. But, I think that’s the direction we are now heading in at Wollongong.”
Prof. Indraratna is also the Founding Director of the new Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Advanced Technologies in Rail Track Infrastructure (ITTC Rail), launched in May.
Based at UOW, the centre is aimed at training the next generation of rail engineers with the knowledge and skills needed to maintain and upgrade the country’s rail network.
It’s also the first ever rail training centre to be funded by the Australian Government, with a $3.9 million ARC grant supported by $3.4 million in contributions from the NSW Government, industry and university partners.
“Given the dependency of the Australian economy on efficient heavy haul, there is a pressing need to upgrade ageing rail infrastructure by rejuvenating higher degree training with a new generation of engineers with advanced knowledge and practice skills,” Prof. Indraratna says.
“Through specialist training of industry-focused researchers, ITTC Rail will meet the challenge of designing, constructing and maintaining the rail network. This will involve close collaboration with companies in the rail supply chain, programs to promote novel design approaches and innovative fabrication of products using advanced manufacturing techniques,” he says.
“Apart from driving more graduates into the field, we have to make sure we come up with best approaches here – best practice design and construction methods – so we can help reduce track maintenance costs too.”
Prof. Indraratna says the New South Wales Government, for instance, spends between $10 and $12 million per year on track maintenance alone. “Our railways are screaming for help,” he adds.
“We also need to teach our PhD students methods to deliver rail design through new modelling techniques in lieu of traditional empirical methods. We need to come up with a more efficient and also cost-effective approach so the tracks are the best they can be and are meeting increasing axle load requirements.
“If the railway companies are interested in getting faster trains and higher loads, then they need these engineering graduates to adopt new ways of modelling. This is why industry is part of the centre too.”
Prof. Indraratna says few universities and training centres in Australia have given this much focus to rail engineering. “Even since the 1990s many universities have focused on rolling stock, mechanical and electrical engineering aspects for rail infrastructure, but when it comes to tracks and the crucial geotechnical aspects, only a few universities are looking at this.”
However, he’s confident ITTC Rail will reap the benefits for the industry in the years to come. “In three years’ time we’ll have more PhD students in track engineering than we’ve ever had before in Australia,” he says.
The centre has a number of key programs within its four-year curriculum for PhD students, with a specific focus on track dynamics, modelling tools and new materials for railway technologies.
Prof. Indraratna says the centre will explore concepts such as using synthetic materials for rail track infrastructure, including the likes of recycled rubber as an energy-absorbing material on tracks, for example.
“You could look at the rubber as kind of like vehicle shock absorbers and it means the track can take more load without being subjected to impact damage,” he says.
“We’re going to be looking at new material for railway technologies that have not been used before and exploring these innovations in design and construction. For design, we have to move away from traditional thinking.”
Part of the centre’s program for PhD students will see them put theory into practice and explore theoretical concepts in the field, working with industry to gain performance validation.
Prof. Indraratna says the centre will have a key role to play well into the future and will tie into the challenges industry faces as a whole.
“There are quite a few projects out there, a major one being Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail – 1700 kilometres of track, of which 500 kilometres will be new tracks and part of the existing 1200 kilometres will also need to be modified,” he says. “That’s what we consider as the current flagship project for the rail industry, so we need to ensure the technology is there and the track is built properly – it’s a golden opportunity for the industry.”