Dr Stuart Thomson is the CEO and Managing Director of the Rail Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: When was the Rail Manufacturing CRC established and what are its objectives?

Stuart Thomson: We were established in 2014. We’re part of the Cooperative Research Centres program, co-funded by the Commonwealth Government. Our specific areas are rail manufacturing and rail development in general. The objective is to support, co-fund and assist the rail industry to collaborate on innovation and R&D programs. We have a lifetime of six years, so we have about 18 months left to run. Over our six-year period we’ll have worked with a number of manufacturers, which include first, second and third-tier manufacturing organisations, rail operators and Australian research institutions working in rail R&D. We’ve also worked with manufacturing and peak bodies like the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) and TrackSAFE Foundation.


AMT: What does the closure of the CRC mean to the greater rail industry?

ST: Essentially, the closure of the Rail Manufacturing CRC is required – all CRCs can now only run for one term. In terms of what it means for the industry, I think it’s two-fold. One, the establishment of the CRC has enabled our Centre to undertake and create a culture of innovation within the rail sector, which will be ongoing. But secondly, with the Centre closing in 2020, it will be incumbent on the rail industry to either look at other options for co-funded models for rail research or alternatively set up their own ventures to enable collaboration and innovation to continue in the sector. Regardless of the path chosen, the Rail Manufacturing CRC has provided a springboard for industry to engage and collaborate.

AMT: Tell us about the activities you’ve been engaged in.

ST:  The Rail Manufacturing CRC’s role is to foster and develop a collaborative framework among rail manufacturing organisations. Essentially our role has been to help the rail industry realise their innovation needs. We work with companies and R&D providers to workshop ideas, to understand each rail business, identify their innovation needs and help provide solutions to these challenges. We look to collaboratively develop projects, co-funded by the CRC, to bring answers to these challenges.

In our research programs, we specifically work in three areas: Power & Propulsion, Materials & Manufacturing, and Design, Modelling & Simulation.

Our main body of work in Power & Propulsion is around new energy storage solutions. We’re researching batteries and supercapacitors, and there’s very big interest in these areas, particularly from our Chinese partners. The reason for this is that if you can remove catenaries – the overhead electrical infrastructure – by just running batteries or supercapcitors alone and charging along the tram route, this provides opportunities to save significantly on infrastructure costs.

We also fund research in energy storage control systems, and we’ve had successful programs in that area with CSIRO and their partner China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC). We’re also doing some blue-sky work in the battery area looking at lithium technologies for use in trains. That’s starting from fundamental research, so it’s very positive to be doing that work in Australia.


AMT: And presumably we’re well-resourced in that area.

ST: We are! The encouraging thing with our Power & Propulsion projects is that we’re seeing a lot of interest from multinationals coming to Australia to do the research, primarily because we have good R&D expertise. There is high regard for Australian researchers. We’d like to see more local companies take advantage, of course, but essentially the outcomes, particularly in the battery and supercapacitor areas, are very positive. It’s very technically challenging but we’re hoping to continue to get runs on the board as the individual projects in this program progress.

The second program we work in is Materials & Manufacturing, which focuses on the maintenance and durability of the track and rail rolling stock. For example we’re working with Bombardier to look at wheel bearings and assessing their lifecycle. A fairly simple project on the face of it, but the mathematics used and the simulations required are complex. The aim is to better understand these materials. So with bearings, there’s changes to grease, the composition of greases used, the operating conditions, etc. We’re trying to create scenarios where we understand these materials better, understand their lifecycles, and more importantly, their maintenance cycles. If we can keep rolling stock on track for longer and optimise maintenance times, considerable savings in maintenance budgets can be made.

Obviously the other scenario is if we can identify when something is about to fail, we can the get the affected rolling stock off the line beforehand. In that area, we’re working with Knorr-Bremse looking at heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) units. We are also about to undertake a predictive analysis project with Downer to model numerous components within rolling stock to better understand when a failure happens, and when it’s likely to happen.

Also in manufacturing we have an interest in the material components used. It’s early days yet, but we’re very hopeful one of our projects being conducted at CSIRO, to develop new materials for brake discs, will result in new technological advances.

Again, we’re seeing multinationals coming to Australia to invest in these projects, not just because the projects are specific to Australian needs, but because there is technical expertise here – based on Australia’s heavy-haul and passenger rail experience – that companies know can genuinely assist their businesses. There’s a great opportunity for Australia to develop hubs of excellence to do this work, to support not just local manufacturing, but global manufacturing organisations.

The third program, Design Modelling & Simulation is looking at the modelling of an array of rail applications, whether it be the design of rolling stock, the adoption of Industry 4.0, designing automation techniques to make the processes more efficient, or using sensors for collecting data off rolling stock or manufacturing processes to make them more efficient.

One such area involves using UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technologies to assess rail infrastructure. We’re funding a number of PhD projects with partners such as Monash University where you have a UAV that flies from a base-station and carries an array of sensors that can monitor the track or fly into railway culverts and monitor the condition of infrastructure. In the future, this technology will enable operators to put instruments on rolling stock that identifies potential problems onsite, with a robotic UAV that can respond, flying to the affected site and checking the infrastructure more extensively. If repairs are needed, the UAV can undertake those repairs or schedule workers to complete the repairs. Compare that scenario to the current status where workers are continually walking sections of line to do this work. The financial savings and risk mitigation benefits are potentially huge.

Another challenge we’re looking at in the Design Modelling & Simulation program is new designs for eliminating platform gap issues. This is a critical issue for the rail industry. With numerous generations of infrastructure and rolling stock, worldwide there have been issues with both disabled-access and potential safety risks associated with the gap between trains and the platform.


AMT: I guess with rail transport, it’s easy to regard it as an established technology with limited scope for real innovation – basically a box on wheels running on rails. But emerging technologies are clearly offering significant gains.

ST: It’s interesting you say that because we’re finding a lot of this is now being driven by the general public. In Australia we’re seeing more desire from consumers to use public transport, given road bottlenecks and traffic jams, etc. We’re seeing a move to wanting to use public transport, and then of course the general public also expects more from their rail operators relating to technology.

In this field, one of our key programs has been technologies for optimising passenger flow. We’ve been working very hard with Downer and the University of Technology Sydney developing a new technology called DwellTrack. It works off infra-red monitoring; we have cameras that sit on crowded platforms that can model the 3D environment of how passengers are moving. With passenger movement on platforms and those disembarking from trains, we can monitor the pathways of individuals, and use that information to design better platforms and improve communications with passengers.

We see this technology – the design modelling and simulation components  – starting to fit with rail technologies that are emerging. You referred to rail being a box that people move in, but they’re becoming more and more sophisticated. We’re seeing weight sensors on trains, so they can accurately predict whether there’s free carriages or free seats based on the weight of the carriage. Team that up with technologies we’re developing, and we start to be able to provide guidance to passengers about where they can get a seat on a train, or where to position themselves so they can get on and off. The flow-on effect is that people start to move to positions on platforms and be guided. That will help rail operators to minimise dwell-time – where the train comes in and stops. Then hopefully we can get more trains on track, because that’s one of the key issues we have thanks to a population boom in capital cities. That technology is going to be highly relevant for major train stations within Australia, and will have global reach and applicability.

We see a great opportunity for Australia to set itself up as a high-technology developer in the rail sector and to create more job opportunities that will outlive the short-term benefits of the rail boom. We know first-hand there’s great research capability in Australia, and as our program demonstrates, a number of companies are willing to invest in Australian innovation. We’re quite buoyed by that fact.

AMT: How significant is rail manufacturing in Australia, and how much potential is there?

ST: It’s changing. A lot of it is driven by the governments of the day. I think it’s fair to say that over the last 30 years, there’s been under-investment in rail infrastructure. In contrast you only have to watch the news in the last five years to witness the massive turnaround in investment. I believe future investment in rail is tipped at being up to $150bn over the next 25 years. There’s going to be significant investment over the coming decades.

We’re also seeing decisions, particularly in Victoria, around local content manufacturing. There’s a requirement for at least 50% of manufacturing components in the rolling stock be produced in Victoria. With policies like that manufacturing will continue to grow – we’ve seen over two years of solid growth in the general Australian manufacturing figures on a monthly basis. We see considerable potential for the rail manufacturing sector to grow over the next 20 years.

At present we’re witnessing a lot of investment into manufacturing and maintenance facilities due to some larger bids that have come on-stream. We’re seeing the high-capacity metro here in Melbourne, with Downer and local suppliers currently involved in the manufacture of that rolling stock. We’re seeing Bombardier and the new-generation (NGR) systems up in Queensland, and the forthcoming Metronet project in Perth among numerous others. Although some of that rolling stock has been imported, the projects have created long-term local maintenance jobs. As more of these larger bids come online, I think we’ll see more interest both in local manufacturing and in the ongoing maintenance areas.

One key issue for the industry is making sure there’s a pipeline of work to enable investment in capital, in R&D, in innovation. With the work that’s coming online, there’s 10 years-plus of solid work for rail manufacturers, so we’re hopeful we’ll see more investment in these areas.


AMT: Is there a similarity to shipbuilding where you get that ‘Valley of Death’ scenario? Peaks and troughs where big orders come in, those orders are fulfilled, and then it’s suddenly quiet?

ST: I think it’s typical of manufacturing in general. It’s not restricted to rail. But particularly with big infrastructure projects or large capital items, clearly there’s benefit to having a filled pipeline, ensuring that ongoing orders are level rather than having peaks and troughs. One key issue we’ve identified through the Rail Manufacturing CRC is that the demand for some key graduate and post-graduate skills in the future will be far in excess of what we’re producing currently. We see that as a key criteria – and this is where I think government and industry need to be talking to each other – that there’s an understanding: how are we going to address the skills gap and ensure we have a continuous pipeline of projects with a workforce and the skills that can deliver on them?

You only have to look at some of the figures. The ARA recently reported that skills gaps in the rail sector will be an ever-present issue as we move into the next decade. Our Centre is aiming to play a role to address these shortfalls. We help fund and train PhD students in the rail sector: we have 47 PhDs on our books at the moment in our six-year program, and we’re hopeful that a lot of those students will go on to have roles in the rail industry. Given some of the highly sought-after skillsets these young people have, they have the potential to assist industry to start taking on new innovations, like Big Data projects, implementing the Internet of Things into rail, adopting automation and so on. We’re actively funding the training the next generation of post-graduate students that will find employment opportunities in the rail industry.


AMT: What’s the biggest challenge for Australia in being globally competitive in this area?

ST: Collaboration and innovation. There’s a lot of talk about jobs going offshore, but I think one of the keys for manufacturing in Australia is that there is now a capacity to work on a more equal footing via adoption of technologies such as automation, high-tech manufacturing processes, and working to streamline current processes. At the end of the day, it comes back to being able to compete on cost with global competitors, and for manufacturing in general – not just rail – I think there is value to be had in adopting these innovations, taking costs out of production, and by the same token also producing higher-quality components through high-tech manufacturing solutions.

For example, we have programs where we’ve looked at welding technologies in rolling stock, and where these technologies allow for automated welding of rail components. Not only does this technology have the potential to reduce the labour costs required to produce components, but the quality of the welding is consistently uniform as well. So we have the potential for higher-quality products to be produced at a lower cost through automation. I think the benefit to Australian manufacturing in the future will be that, by adopting technologies such as automation and some of the paradigms around Industry 4.0, using clever design, and doing a lot of the planning and pre-modelling work through digital systems, you reduce a lot of the front-end cost of the production cycle.

We have a very highly skilled set of researchers and technologists within Australia’s research institutions. We have to ensure we maintain this expertise and that companies within Australia use these resources. That’s one reason why we exist, to ensure that industry and academics collaborate to produce these results. We’ve seen a great deal of beneficial outcomes from the projects we’ve been involved in, and we have witnessed a culture change in some of the rail sector organisations, where they’re now actively engaging with universities to look at developing new technologies and solving challenges within their organisations.

The key in the future will be to create a global manufacturing enterprise using the smarts that exist within the country. Many organisations don’t need to have these resources internally in a business, but are able to utilise the key research platforms and research organisations that we have in Australia to deliver rail R&D.

The challenges for both government and industry are to work out how we can produce rolling stock better and more efficiently, and having a national agenda which addresses some of the fundamental issues that exist. The harmonisation of standards, regulations and tenders etc, across the states and territories would have a major effect of increasing economies of scale. And having a steady pipeline of projects that enables manufacturers to invest in facilities, R&D and capital expenditure, that will help to sustain the industry. I think we’re seeing some positive results of that in the defence industry at the moment, and I think we could potentially see the same in rail in future.

AMT: Tell us about your professional background and how you got into this line of work.

ST: After receiving my PhD in Physical Chemistry at the University of NSW, I spent two years at the Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung in Germany studying high-throughput discovery technologies. On returning to Australia I worked in the manufacturing sector, then I spent some time as a Research Director and Chief Operating Officer within CRC Mining, another CRC entity. Much of CRC Mining’s focus was about better efficiencies in the excavation of ores within mining: a lot of automation and new digital technologies involved in the area.

I then went on from CRC Mining to work as Executive Director of the Grape & Wine Research and Development Corporation, a funding body to invest in grape and wine technologies. So again, while it’s a different sector, the fundamental issues are the same; it was a set of manufacturing organisations looking at a number of inherent issues. There are more similarities between those organisations – in mining, grape & wine, and rail – than you’d probably think. And in all of these industries there is a desire to step up and compete on a global scale. The wine and mining industries are doing very well in that respect, but have built considerable R&D expertise and partnerships over a long period of time. Rail can definitely do the same.

I’ve been very fortunate to work in some great industries. And I think we’re seeing the start of a golden period for the rail sector. We’re seeing huge opportunities for investment. And market opportunities, not only for the Tier 1’s but for the whole supply chain.


AMT: What’s the most rewarding aspect of the job?

ST: For me, it’s seeing the next generation of our railway workers coming through our, and other rail industry, programs. With university students, we deal pretty much with post-graduate researchers, but the thing for me is, when we started this program a lot of our PhDs didn’t realise the opportunities that exist in rail. But now we see that post-graduates are starting to identify emerging opportunities in the rail sector, we’re seeing greater engagement by industry with the next generation. I think in the next 10 years we’re going to see more and more graduates and post-graduates move into the rail sector. I think that’s very positive.