With the imminent stand up of the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) on 13 June (and, dare we say it, the return to our screens of the fictional Nation Building Authority on 7 June), it seems the opportune month for a close look at rail.

We also have the benefit of the recent publication of Dr Kerry Schott's report on Inland Rail and the Sydney Trains Review Initial Report, published in April and May respectively.

We've been following the evolution of high speed rail, and looking at some common themes in the thinking behind it and the recommendations and findings of those reports. This is our summary.

High speed rail

Prime Minister Albanese, as a former Infrastructure Minister, knows a fair bit about high speed rail and what's feasible in a country like ours.

He's indicated he's keen to prioritise a high speed Sydney to Newcastle link, as the first stage in a Melbourne to Brisbane coastal corridor.

His thinking is surely reinforced by the work he initiated as Infrastructure Minister and by the report of the High Speed Rail Advisory Group (HSRAG) released while he was Deputy Prime Minister in August 2013.

Critically, the HSRAG report emphasises the need for clarity about where, when and how, and the need to maintain and build momentum. To make high speed rail a reality, it is vital to approach it as a series of smaller, achievable projects, each with tangible timelines, milestones and target dates, as well as staged completion within the foreseeable future.

As the report's authors say, "the greatest immediate threat to high speed rail in Australia is not cost or timing or technology . it is simply inertia, brought about by perceptions that, even if desirable in concept, high speed rail is unrealistic or not within the contemplation of current generations."

That inertia in turn has real consequences - it is "not benign". Inertia delays realisation of the economic benefits of high speed rail. More practically, as cities spread and growth continues without factoring in a high speed rail future, the costs of the project grow exponentially and the options to make it a reality shrink further away.

The recommendations of the report, informed by the drive for momentum were:

  • formally commit to high speed rail and settle arrangements with state and territory governments as soon as possible
  • protect the entire high speed rail corridor as a priority (initially through national legislation)
  • refer high speed rail to Infrastructure Australia for initial assessment - Infrastructure Australia would ensure a holistic consideration, in effect looking at a high speed rail future alongside other potential investments, enabling it to be incorporated into the planning and investment frameworks across all jurisdictions
  • establish a high speed rail authority, tasked immediately with the above priorities, and with systematically tackling key threshold issues.

Those threshold issues include:

  • leadership and commitment from all jurisdictions to work together to make high speed rail a priority
  • urgent corridor preservation, to save costs in the long run
  • staging and route determination, undertaken flexibly, catering for development and growth and resolving broader transport challenges
  • costs, looking at options for reducing cost and disaggregating high speed rail into smaller, discrete and more achievable projects
  • financing options and commercial case, considering opportunities to reduce capital outlays and spread risk
  • system specifications, looking at what's the best technology mix for Australian needs
  • labour preparedness, considering broader market context
  • realistic timeframes, that are meaningful for the community.

Adding a 2023 lens, we might also task the HSRA with looking at opportunities for Australian manufacturing, broader use of renewables, how its program can dovetail with the current race to build energy infrastructure, climate change impacts and resilience, ensuring inter-operability, reducing environmental impacts of construction and operation, community engagement and social outcomes (such as skills legacy, indigenous workforce and business participation etc).

We'd certainly also recommend they read Dr Kerry Schott's report.

Inland Rail

Dr Kerry Schott's report into Inland Rail provides further insights into some of the challenges of delivering ambitious linear infrastructure across boundaries and through communities.

Inland Rail refers to the project of upgrading 1,087km of track and developing 687km of new track between Brisbane and Melbourne, traversing regional NSW via Parkes. To date, the project is being delivered by the Commonwealth-owned Australian Rail and Track Corporation (ARTC), which operates the country rail network in NSW and national rail networks more broadly.

Some of Dr Schott's findings are unique to ARTC and its management, but there are lessons to be learned for all projects of this kind. A key finding is the need for real technical expertise (including engineering, safety, environmental and procurement) in the governance frameworks to complement traditional board capabilities. The principal recommendation is to establish a project-focused subsidiary with the right expertise and singular focus on delivery.

It is evident Inland Rail would have benefited from better articulation of its end objectives, early engagement with communities to secure approvals, better and more comprehensive environmental assessment processes and a more structured focus on inter-operability, transport connections and impacts, risk management, corridor reservation, planning, interfaces, freight outcomes, community outcomes and staging of the project with clear milestones. Reading the report, our sense is there may initially have been a lack of appreciation for the complexity of the task of securing approvals and access to land across such a vast distance, compounded by a lack of precision about the route.

Sydney Trains

The day-to-day operations and maintenance of our suburban rail network may seem light years from high speed rail and Inland Rail, but they are all part of one continuum from concept to delivery to operations. It's important to begin with the end in mind, as we all know. For rail, that means starting with a vision of an operating railway that delivers great customer service, is safe, resilient and reliable, seamlessly connects modes and communities, grows our economies and moves our people and freight.

The Sydney Trains review focuses on the reliability and resilience of the Sydney Trains network, a key piece of infrastructure supporting Sydney's productivity. The review is being led by Ms Carolyn Walsh, the Chair of the National Transport Commission. So far we have an interim report and recommendations. The final report is anticipated in October.

Common themes emerge nevertheless.

One is the importance of having the technical and operational capability represented at the leadership table and having direct input into decision-making. In this case, it means Sydney Trains is to have a seat at the executive table, and be actively engaged in decision-making about major rail asset procurement. It also means the people who operate and maintain the trains, through the rail unions, are to be actively engaged at appropriate stages in the procurement of major rail assets.

Another theme is the development of plans and programs, clearly communicated and delivered on, to resolve the maintenance backlog and other operational issues as quickly as possible.

A third theme is the recognition of the interface issues between different owners and operations, and the potential for duplication of costs and a potential lack of clarity.

It will be interesting how the Sydney Trains review unfolds, and how these three rail initiatives unfold over coming years.

Those folks at the Nation Building Authority will no doubt always be able to elicit a few laughs at the expense of our hard working public sector colleagues delivering major infrastructure. But, the signs are here of a much more pragmatic approach to future project delivery, with specialist expertise at the top table, and a focus on building momentum and getting things done in planned and manageable stages.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.