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 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 position itself 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 jobs while lifting economic growth. We can also boost apprenticeships and improve the skills base that will propel Australian manufacturing forward for decades. This approach would be of particular benefit for regional Australia, with companies like Downer Rail and Lovell Springs both operating in the Hunter.
To take advantage of the potential to increase opportunities in rail, Australia needs 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-fire 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.
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. The more important question is whether training meets the needs of industry.
In places such as the Hunter, it is crucial that our training providers deliver exactly what is required by industry to ensure the jobs created in the region are filled by locals. Developing advanced manufacturing also requires genuine bipartisan political commitment over the long term.
The easy option for governments expanding rail is to buy the rolling stock overseas, particularly if it is cheaper than building it here. But 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.
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 Australasian Railway Association notes, every passenger train service reduces the cost of congestion to the economy by up to $8500.
Australia needs a National Rail Plan – one that not only addresses manufacturing industry policy, but promotes rail investment in the full context of all of its economic benefits.