The pipeline of rail work in New Zealand has fluctuated in recent decades; along with it, the supply of specialised workers needed to fulfil it.
Despite the increasing popularity of rail, shifting political priorities have created a ‘stop and go’ industry, often with large gaps in between major projects.
In turn, talent has frequently departed for other industries or countries, which promise a steadier stream of work.
The trend appears to be a national problem across sectors, where annual staff turnover of 16 to 51 percent is the norm for almost one fifth of businesses.
However, the issue is pronounced in rail, where the inconsistency of work creates a sparsity of long term positions.
Anthony McFadden, General Manager of John Holland, says the implications of this can be significant.
“A high turnover of workers in the rail industry often translates to talent shortages, safety issues and less favourable performance outcomes,” he told Informa Connect.
“From a safety perspective, if you are trying to induct new workers on site every three years or so – many of which have never worked in rail – you will inevitably encounter more risk. There are fundamental OHS differences between this type of setting and other civil engineering sites.
“From a talent and performance perspective, rail is a highly technical field. When experienced workers migrate to other sectors, it can be hard to replace them when the next project comes around. And that can affect the whole rail operation. Achieving good outcomes becomes difficult when your skillset disappears and has to reassemble itself every few years.”
A path forward
Thankfully, Mr McFadden is optimistic about the future of rail in New Zealand and believes there are ways to tackle this challenge.
He says a transparent and collaborative approach between government and industry could ensure continuity of work and, in turn, talent retention.
“Political buy-in, coupled with a mature industry approach, with critical input from the likes of KiwiRail, could be all we need to ensure a steady stream of projects of various scales across the industry,” he said.
“Works continuity is critic. So if we thought about how we could deliver smaller/medium projects under collaborative longer term programs of works – rather than individual “project-by-project” arrangements – then the critical rail skillset is maintained within the sector and will feed into major projects as they arise. This would enhance rail further making it an even more attractive career proposition.”
That said, government buy-in could be a challenge to maintain, given the competing priorities around road.
While New Zealand is increasingly looking towards rail to fulfil its rapid transit and decarbonisation objectives, the modality has not always received this much focus.
Maintaining and furthering support for rail across governments will be the first major obstacle, McFadden said.
“If rail falls out of popularity under a new government, we will continue to grapple with volatility and all the problems that come with it. We need a steady environment that people can entrust their careers to – and this all starts with how rail is prioritised, politically.”
Once consistent support is achieved, however, the task becomes more manageable.
“With political backing, key clients can work with industry to map out pipelines that smooth out the peaks and troughs,” he said.
Decarbonisation is improving its appeal
Thankfully, rail is fast earning recognition as a sustainable transport solution and Mr McFadden believes this could increase its pipeline resilience.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the climate benefits of rail and this is likely to mean greater levels of government support in the years ahead.
“Even the biggest road enthusiasts across government will find it hard to challenge future rail projects. So this will hopefully improve the continuity of work.”
Anthony McFadden and his colleague Stephen Shaddock – Alliance General Manager of the North Western Program Alliance – are due to attend the NZ Rail Conference this week.
Mr Shaddock will host a presentation on level crossings, detailing the success story of a program alliance.
Joining him on stage are representatives from KiwiRail, City Rail Link, and Waka Kotahi.
This year’s event will be held on 29-30 November at the Hilton Auckland.
Learn more and register your place here.
About Anthony McFadden
Anthony McFadden (BEng – Civil) is a highly experienced construction professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in collaborative contracting environments.
During this time, he has held senior management and operational roles on a variety of complex large scale civil construction, rail, tunnelling and water sector contracts across New Zealand and Australia.
In his current role as General Manager for John Holland’s rail business in New Zealand, NSW, QLD and ACT, he is responsible for the delivery of a portfolio of rail projects ranging in value from a few million through to $1bn.
About Stephen Shaddock
Stephen Shaddock (BEng) is an accomplished rail professional with over 20 years’ experience managing some of Australia’s largest rail construction and upgrade projects.
He is currently Alliance General Manager for the $3.5B North Western Program Alliance (NWPA), leading a team of over 600 staff on the level crossing removal project in Melbourne.
To date, the Level Crossing Program has removed over 75 dangerous and congested level crossings around the city and delivered a range of upgrades including new stations, track duplication and stabling yards to create safer, more open spaces for local communities to enjoy.