A rail standards harmonisation plan

The National Rail Action Plan identified a lack of national standards as a key challenge for the Australian rail sector. Under its Harmonisation Plan, standards are being delivered to reduce the inefficiencies of the past.

Harmonising standards for train components increases productivity and safety. It also opens up opportunities for local manufacturing, improving Australia’s manufacturing self-sufficiency.

Learn more about the National Rail Action Plan

Multiple standards for the same components

Rail in Australia has evolved as a collection of separate passenger and freight networks. Australia’s rail networks have developed different standards and rules for common components and processes. Examples include:

  • different rail gauges, not only between states and territories but within them
  • different standards for common rolling stock components
  • different operating rules for similar communications and control systems.

The National Rail Action Plan identified several problems that result from the legacy of rail development:

  • Limited flow of rail across networks due to technical, operational, regulatory and administrative inconsistencies.
  • Interoperability is difficult and costly because of the lack of integration across networks.
  • No incentive for local manufacturers to scale up or innovate as they serve small, fragmented markets.

The National Rail Action Plan identified the need for a harmonisation plan, and an economic and financial analysis to help inform priorities.

Harmonisation plan

In May 2021, transport ministers agreed to fund a three-year Harmonisation Plan to deliver a range of standards. The plan aims to:

  • reduce inefficiencies caused by inconsistent practices around the country
  • increase safety
  • stimulate local manufacturing capabilities for railway parts needed in high volumes.

Stimulating domestic manufacturing supports jobs, secures supply chains and helps buyers meet their commitments to sourcing local content.

The Rail Industry Safety and Standards Board (RISSB) is delivering the 12 work packages that make up the three-year plan.

Benefits and priorities

High-level benefits of harmonisation include:

  • improved operational efficiency 
  • higher inherent safety
  • lower input costs 
  • lower training costs
  • broader markets for components, providing an incentive for investment in local manufacturing.

The plan’s priorities are driven by the procurement schedule for upcoming projects. The focus is on harmonising standards for components where maximising buying power will have the most value and bring economic benefits.

Strengthening manufacturing self-sufficiency

Transport ministers also approved a financial and economic analysis to understand the benefits of greater harmonisation. The aim is to discover how it can strengthen manufacturing self-sufficiency and reduce reliance on international supply chains.

This work is especially important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last two years, the disruption of global supply chains has highlighted Australia’s vulnerability.

The focus of the analysis is to measure the benefits of dealing with rolling stock components in ways that are more:

  • nationally coordinated
  • consistent and harmonised.

Completed work

As part of our work on the initial National Rail Action Plan, the RISSB released new standards for:

  • glazing
  • crashworthiness (bogie structure)
  • egress
  • emissions. 

The benefits of this work are already being realised. For example, the new glazing standard has already been included in tender documents by governments in Victoria and New South Wales. The new standard replaced nine different standards for glass.

Current priorities

The Harmonisation Plan is a dynamic document that responds to the needs of the rail sector. Priorities are adjusted when those needs change.

Work is currently underway in several areas, including:

  • radio communications – supporting a national approach to take advantage of the latest technology
  • heating, ventilation and air-conditioning
  • energy storage, including batteries
  • noise (train horns)
  • wheel sets, including brake pads – brought forward to meet the needs of the sector.

A National Rolling Stock Register is also being built. This will reduce the administrative burden on industry, improve safety on the network and support harmonisation efforts.

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