Rail networks are modernising amid a big construction pipeline in WA.
On a visit to the US in 2007, Rob Hennessy took some career inspiration from the major investments planned for California’s railways.
“We were travelling ... and picked up a paper and read about all this major infrastructure spending in the rail space, and thought we’d have to get into the rail business,” Mr Hennessy, now operations manager of John Holland Rail in Perth, said.
“Construction is such a boom-and-bust industry if you’re rooted to one city, whereas the rail industry feels like a small, specialised business but it’s a capability needed everywhere in the world.”
That familiarity with the sector’s cycles perhaps underpins John Holland Rail’s strategy, prompting caution not to overextend the business.
“There’s always a peak and a trough,” Mr Hennessy told Business News.
“The threat around the corner is still a short term [outlook], not trying to do more than what your capability allows you to do.
“It’s not a defensive position, it’s just an eagerness to succeed and deliver a product so our reputation and capability is consistent to what we say it should be.”
John Holland Rail’s recent work has included an upgrade at Claremont station, a $36 million project that will increase the frequency of services in the inner-Fremantle line.
The station reopened in early June, after two kilometres of track were installed and the heritage station platforms upgraded.
In January 2020, the company won a $59 million contract for maintenance and fault correction on the Public Transport Authority network, while it has continued to perform maintenance for Arc Infrastructure’s freight network.
In the Pilbara, John Holland has worked with big iron ore miners on signalling, track upgrades and construction of new rail lines.
Mr Hennessy said the business had grown its presence in the Pilbara in the past two years but wanted to continue at a sustainable size and focus on consistency.
Operating a modern railway involves many more parts beyond laying sleepers and steel tracks.
In the Pilbara, Rio Tinto has adopted autonomous trains for hauling iron ore, while in Perth, the PTA will be exploring changes to signalling on older lines to increase train frequency to three-minute intervals at peak times in some locations.
“In WA we’ve doubled our signalling capability now in the past two years,” he said.
“Mostly in the Pilbara, but we’re starting to expand that offering into the PTA market.
“We’re about to begin the building of the TAFE and PTA signalling centre.
“They want to bring a qualification that’s only [taught] over east onto WA.
“It’s a big thing for the rail industry to bring that capability here.”
The first stage of the signalling centre was opened in Midland last year, with employees from Rio Tinto, John Holland and Hitachi to be in the first intake.
The students will undertake a Certificate IV in electrical rail signalling, while the trainees had previously been required to move to the east coast to learn the relevant skills.
“There’s a real gap in that skillset in the market, fully qualified Certificate IV signalling technicians,” Mr Hennessy said.
“When you’re taking skill sets from within the rail industry and having to fly them over east to get them finally qualified, when the market is so busy here … [the facility] was good forward thinking.”
The company has also improved its inhouse signalling capability, with a testing centre at its Kings Square office for the software used in the trackside signalling computers.
“A lot of signalling is very bespoke technology,” Mr Hennessy said, with the technology developers likely to decide who and how signalling equipment would be installed.
“They do a lot of inhouse delivery … we supplement the construction side.
“But we’ve got a design team here who work with software to layout equipment in line with track design and then test that.”