Australia has one of the fastest rates of population growth in the developed world. In Australia, the estimated residential population has soared by more than 380,000 in the past 12 months, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. From 1990, the country’s population increased by a staggering 40%.

Most of this growth has occurred in the major cities, particularly Melbourne which is now just 300,000 people behind Sydney, having grown by almost one million over the past decade.

How can the country’s transport system cater for this kind of growth? In Australia, the traditional answer has been to put more cars on the road. For instance, in Melbourne, The Herald Sun recently revealed that an extra 500,000 cars have appeared since 2011.

“In Australia, we have had a real passion for the automobile,” says Bob Herbert, chairman of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA). “Most families have two or three cars. We’ve always thought that is the only way to proceed, that we should be building bigger and better roads.”

Prioritising rail projects in Australia

However, Herbert believes this approach is wrong. Not only does it fail to tackle the problem of population growth, he says, but “it adds to all the congestion and makes our roads clogged”, and in a country the size of Australia, a car can only get you so far for certain tasks.

“We have very large distances between our cities,” says Herbert. “We need to be able to bring people out of the city, into the outlying suburbs and regional centres. With our resources so spaced out, we also need a very integrated freight system, which picks up freight whatever it might be and takes it long distances to port.”

While rail offers the ideal solution to these problems, according to Hebert, it also suffers from its own weaknesses. Firstly, he says that investment in rolling stock has slipped. For the coming years, Australian Governments have pledged around $100bn to correct this but “because rail hasn’t been the favoured approach our trains have been allowed to grow old,” says Herbert, adding, “We’ve got a lot of ground to make up.”

Secondly, Australia’s rail network is poorly coordinated. “Unlike the UK or New Zealand,” says Herbert, “in rail we don’t have one sovereign government making the decisions. In defence or naval shipbuilding, our government is responsible but rail has always been seen as the purview of state governments.”

Harmonising Australia’s fragmented rail network

This has a number of negative consequences, as Herbert explains: “When you have nine governments all with their own ideas and levels of influence you end up with very different standards. For example, we have 35 different grades of glass that are used in trains and buses. That is very unproductive. We should have two or three glass standards.”

It also means the demand for trains is, what he calls, “lumpy”. “When an election comes up in Queensland, or Victoria, or New South Wales, the state governments will say ‘let’s invest in trains and more carriages to relive the congestion’,” Herbert explains. “So, instead of there being a smooth demand curve where companies can build their capacity to deal with it, there is too much demand at one time. Governments then look offshore, meaning we don’t build capacity in Australia to solve our own problem.”

Improving levels of coordination between the different commonwealth, state and territory authorities is one of the central themes of ARA’s recently published National Rail Industry Plan for the Benefit of Australia. “We’re saying let’s try to pull this together, get a plan and see if we can introduce some coordination and cohesion into the industry,” says Herbert. “It’s only going to get bigger and better so now really is the time to act.”

The plan, he continues, also includes an emphasis on “recognising the importance of rail for Australia’s infrastructure development, urban planning and freight movements”, growing the capabilities of individuals and companies in the industry, maximising opportunities for rail companies and fostering innovation, research and development.

In devising the plan, Herbert says ARA drew particular inspiration from the UK, where a Rail Supply Group was launched in February 2016 and is co-chaired by an industry leader, the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. It is, in effect, the UK’s own rail industry plan.

“The UK’s Rail Supply Group started with the government saying it wants to regenerate the rail industry and become the best provider and operator in the world,” says Hebert. “That led to all the supply companies coming together and forming a group that works directly with government. When I first looked at it I thought I could have picked it up and just cut out the word UK and put Australia there and it would have fitted very well. I said to our guys ‘use that as a model’.”

Public engagement on public rail projects

For now, Herbert says, the most important thing for ARA is convincing people in the value of its plan. While he recognises that mediating between the different political aspirations of Australia’s Governments can be difficult, he believes the task is essential.

“It’s no good this being seen as ARA’s plan,” he says, “It needs to be owned by the industry and the nine governments to make it work.”

A recent meeting between an ARA delegation and Commonwealth Ministers in parliament suggests this strategy is working well so far. “I’ve very rarely been able to pull an audience from our government where the three top ministers are sitting at the table talking to us about what we are trying to achieve,” Herbert says. “We did that when we wrote the plan and invited them to a meeting. It was a very positive sign.”

Now, Herbert adds, he is travelling from state to state, telling people of ARA’s aspirations. “The challenge I have at the moment,” he says, “is making sure the governments put their hands in their pockets to fund it. I don’t think there is a lot of money required but you’ve got to put some resources in place to drive this.”