The National Transport Research Organisation (NTRO) has recently completed its 2023 Global Transport Collaboration program, trekking across Europe in search of innovations to support the safety, resiliency, sustainability and automation of Australia’s transport network.
The National Transport Research Organisation (NTRO) plays an essential role across all modes of transport. As a key researcher and developer of practical solutions, the organisation works to push the envelope as a central hub for transport research, policy and project work.
Michael Caltabiano, CEO – NTRO says the enterprise is always working to incorporate and learn from international best practice to achieve the best possible outcomes for Australia’s transport industry.
“The NTRO is one of seven Global Research Laboratories. We’re partners with England, Germany, France, Sweden, China and the United States. Because we do so much, with so little, the other countries around the world are constantly interested in how we do things,” he says.
“We’re really interested in their capacity with large volumes and intense populations and how they’re dealing with their networks. We all learn from each other.”
In an effort to maximise international resources, to share ideas and develop potential solutions for Australia’s national road infrastructure, the NTRO began working on a concept that would eventually give birth to the 2023 Global Transport Collaboration (GTC).
“We spent quite a bit of time planning where we would go, what we would do and what the outcomes were that we were trying to achieve,” Caltabiano says.
The GTC program pooled representatives from both industry and government, providing a variety of insights into current challenges and opportunities from across the sector.
In October 2023, the GTC delegates commenced a two-week schedule, first stopping by the PIARC World Congress in Prague, an event held every four years.
“It brings together the world’s best road technologists on what’s happening globally in the technology space, material science space and the safety space,” Caltabiano says.
Caltabiano says this knowledge exchange was very much a “two-way street”.
This event also enabled NTRO to host meetings with its international counterparts and equivalents from Germany (BASt – Federal highway Research Institute), United Kingdom (TRL – Transport Research Laboratory) and the United States (TRB – Transportation Research Board).
Caltabiano says PIARC was a “mission of discovery”, with the GTC delegation conducting a round table format discussion with executives from each respective research organisation.
The GTC then moved into Germany, where discussions were held with executives from the German Ministry for Infrastructure and Transport. As Caltabiano explains, these conversations focused on the transformation of the sector, in particular its energy transformation.
“They’re in this remarkable confluence of transport, energy and technology. These three sectors have converged and are delivering some really interesting outcomes,” he says.
“They’ve invested massively in hydrogen infrastructure. It’s close to a billion-dollar investment in this space because they firmly believe it’s part of the energy mix of the future.”
The GTC also sought to learn more about Germany’s Autobahn network, with its systems and processes centralised under the Autobahn ‘company’. Caltabiano says key learnings centred around the opportunities presented by a centralised initiative.
“All of their national highway systems are now part of a single company, one national enterprise, which has created one standard. In Australia there’s obviously different standards across the different states, but Germany now has a single standard for maintenance, connectivity and safety,” he says.
“They’re conscious that the next iteration of transport will be very different to the last generation of transport. It will require connectivity that will be much safer, it will potentially be much faster on the highway networks.”
Up to speed
The GTC’s next stop was Paris, with expert discussions centring around the potential for high-speed rail with manufacturer Alstom.
“The business case for high-speed rail isn’t getting people out of their cars and onto trains. It’s about getting people out of the sky and into trains. It’s a much better and nicer environment to work and travel in. It’s just fantastic,” Caltabiano says.
While momentum is building towards the establishment of a high-speed rail network in Australia, such as the appointments to the Board of the High-Speed Rail Authority this year, Caltabiano says accelerating the establishment of compatible infrastructure will be paramount.
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“We just need to get the corridor built and get on with it. It stacks up and makes sense,” he says.
The GTC delegation also visited Colas, a company that’s responsible for the development and distribution of sustainable aggregate, binder and asphalt production. Caltabiano and the rest of the attendees were able to gain insights into the development and application of bitumen binders, sustainable alternatives derived from plant products.
“Countries in Europe are already doing this now in their specifications, you can actually produce a carbon negative bituminous product that will be carbon negative through the use of biogenic binders,” he says.
Caltabiano says there’s plenty for Australia to learn in this space, aided by programs such as the GTC and development from organisations like the NTRO.
“Here in Australia, the states need to invest in research, like we’re doing at the NTRO laboratories. Its vitally important to understand the performance characteristics. Then we need to specify them in the wider implementation in your tender documents and your specifications,” Caltabiano says.
“Before you get there you have to do the laboratory work and accelerated loading work to assure yourself that you’re going to get a quality product at the end for Australian conditions and environments.”
Caltabiano says one of the standout experiences of the GTC was the opportunity to visit London’s Smart Mobility Living Lab during the United Kingdom leg of the program.
The lab is a testing haven for all things transport, with a particular focus on automated vehicles and connected automated mobility evaluations. Like the NTRO, the Smart Mobility Living Lab provides an opportunity for both the public and private sectors to participate in what is word-leading research.
The lab establishes a real-world environment for testing and designing future transport and mobility solutions, with autonomous and self-driving vehicles forming a key part.
“Australia doesn’t have a Smart Mobility lab anywhere and we desperately need one. It was important to show the delegates what this could look like and where we should have one of these in our country, if not several to solve different problems. It’s so important because we’re such a geographically diverse country,” Caltabiano says.
“The next generation of transport will be a digitised world. It’s a self-driving world, it’s a safer world and if we’re not enabled for those journeys because we’ve missed 20 years of coordinated infrastructure development, then we will have missed the boat.
“Now’s the time, in advance of the autonomous world catching up with us, which won’t be tomorrow. It might not even be in 10 years, but perhaps 20 years, but we’ve got to be developing and establishing that infrastructure and those considerations now.”
Caltabiano says that despite the need for further infrastructure developments, Australia does have plenty to offer on the international stage. He says the acknowledgement from international peers towards the strength of Australia’s road management practices was a pleasing surprise.
“What was really clear is that we are the most advanced in the world when it comes to infrastructure measurement. The NTRO fleet of Intelligent Pavement Assessment Vehicles (IPAVE), and the way in which the states and territories use those data sets for asset management tasks, is the most advanced in the world, without question,” he says.
“The rest of the world was looking to us in our conversations going ‘wow, we need to get on board with this sort of technology and understanding of the network’. It allows us to be more efficient, faster and have more knowledge of the asset’s performance.
“For our delegates it was a light bulb moment that ‘you know what? We’re pretty bloody good at this stuff’. We can teach the rest of the world.”
Following the completion of the GTC, the NTRO is reflecting on the learnings, findings and next steps towards incorporating global best practice.
“We’ve already engaged in this process to communicate the outcomes, by compiling a trip report that I’ll be sending to all governments in Australia. We’ll also be doing public seminars in every state to articulate these outcomes to the entire industry,” Caltabiano says.
“That knowledge transfer is one of the key reasons for our existence as an entity. We’ve also begun planning on the GTC 2024 charter, where we’re looking to go to China and look at what a high-speed rail network looks like, not just a single link from Sydney to Melbourne.”
Caltabiano says for him personally, one of the standout features of the 2023 GTC was the ability to reconnect and recommence important knowledge exchanges.
“One of the biggest things for me was the ability to reconnect in this post-COVID world with my international colleagues, some of whom I hadn’t seen for the better part of three and half years,” he says.
“Now we can share these important learnings and make sure we’re bringing that vital best practice to the table.”