Planning and Constructing a Rail Utopia

Is it possible to have worked in construction and infrastructure and not have an appreciation of the TV show Utopia? It weaved its way into the consciousness of anyone who has ever helped plan, fund, design and develop a major project, mainly because, although exaggerated, we have often been involved in many of the scenarios the fly on the wall satire delights in.

And as we head into a federal election, we will once again begin to hear the whisper of the immortal phrase ’fast rail.’ It comes up every election cycle; whether it is connecting the Sunshine Coast to Brisbane, Melbourne to Sydney or Sydney to Brisbane, we are forever discussing the unachievable. Indeed, in November, reports came out of a new High-Speed Rail Authority[1] that will “get cracking on building the 1750km railway from Brisbane through Sydney to Melbourne.”

We all love the idea. We delight at the engineering possibilities. We imagine the leisurely cruise from Brisbane to Melbourne on bullet trains that eat up distance and offer a realistic balance of time and affordability to remove our reliance on aviation.

But despite positive potential economic benefits, a 2013 report commissioned by Labour to look at the feasibility of a project identified that: the railway would take 45 years to complete and cost $130 billion in today’s dollars.

Therefore the project may always be a pipedream. No politician or government will sign up for a 45-year project at $130bn. For context, the 2021 Queensland Major Projects Pipeline Report[2] shows a rail pipeline in Queensland of $12.4bn across the next five years. Inland Rail is a 10-year project that was originally estimated at $4.7bn and is now estimated at $14.3bn[3], which is an accurate and fair reflection of the market, the changing nature of a project and how materials and plans change over significant time. Fast Rail would blow those numbers out of the water.

Therefore, you can understand why ‘fast rail” is highly unlikely ever to be a reality. The risks are too significant, the politics too complex, the timescale too long, and while the appetite may be there for commissions, inquiries and authorities, the cynic could argue that they give the impression of doing something while purposely achieving nothing.

So, why are rail projects so challenging?

When you combine significant distance and population density with market capacity and then factor in time, the reality is that a project is too big and distances too great.

It would be possible and advisable to break work into packages, similar to Inland Rail, and have multiple projects in delivery at one time. The challenge is the significant skills, materials and technology challenges that such a project would have and the flow-on impacts on the remaining engineering civil infrastructure sector. It is conceivable that constructing fast rail could halt any other type of civil engineering construction or significantly limit the market’s ability to deliver the works due to consuming all available people and resources.

Getting Rail Projects Right

At Civil Project Partners, we would love to see the dream of fast rail delivered for the eastern seaboard of Australia. Still, government and industry must be able to prove that the economics are a reality, the sector can deliver without the time and cost blow-outs and ensure the promises made to the Australian taxpayer are kept.

So, here are our thoughts on ensuring current and planned rail projects run smoothly and can become the standard that gives confidence that Australia can and could develop and deliver fast rail.

  • Avoid hurry up and wait – This is overcoming the idea of ‘hurry up and wait’. The idea is simple, when the industry is involved in a hurry up and wait process, it is characterised by large amounts of work in a short time, followed by waiting for decisions, approvals and all the while the market moving in terms of skills, resources, materials costs, wages, capacity and capability. Therefore if a plan is developed and defined, stick to it.
  • Support market development – Successful marketplaces support successful projects. Invest in market soundings and capability well ahead of procurement and keep an ongoing dialogue with potential suppliers and contractors so they can meet the needs of a project in a timely and efficient manner.
  • Adopt Early Contractor Involvement – the best projects being delivered utilise ECI to ensure that relationships are created, collaboration occurs, and clients and project teams build trust. However, this step must be accompanied by clear, stable and committed requirements.
  • Be innovative with contracts. Even if broken into multiple stages, major rail works are still significant packages of work, so consider utilising fair, balanced, and equitable contracts. If you don’t industry will not participate, especially if a risk is unfairly weighted to the client, exposing contractors and supply chains.
  • Create a national infrastructure plan – Have a transparent pipeline of projects, regularly updated, managed with realistic timeframes and available for industry scrutiny and feedback. A pipeline of projects is more of a pipedream if it is little more than a wishlist of projects.
  • Implements rewards and incentives for performance – flip the model from penalties and legal claims to reward and incentivisation. This will encourage performance, which all contracts should, but rather than penalise; it can enable innovative new technologies, techniques and materials to be developed and implemented, rewarding contractors and suppliers for their efforts.
  • Be bold and try things – the sector lags behind others in terms of productivity and output, so enable new approaches to be trialled, approved and implemented as soon as possible and critically share those experiences and learnings with the industry.




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