Bringing members the latest information, updates, opportunities and predictions from your core industries and sectors.

 Updated February 2018

The construction, maintenance and management of Australia’s railways provides a major source of employment for engineers, and a significant driver of engineering activity. The industry employs engineers both directly through the private and government rail operators, and indirectly through the engagement of consulting firms. Employees in this sector are involved in the scoping, design, construction and maintenance of railways and rail assets, including urban railways, CBD tunnels, inter-city rail services and signalling equipment. While road infrastructure typically receives a greater share of funding a media coverage, quality rail networks play a vital role in limiting congestion and enabling productivity.

The sector is also heavily reliant government spending decisions at federal and state levels. Government cuts to spending can often harm the industry, while a focus on economic growth and jobs often requires investment in productivity enabling infrastructure such as rail. While the level of investment has fluctuated over the past five years, there are some positive signs of growth for the industry.

Australia relies heavily on its rail network for both passenger and freight transport. Rail provides a daily means of transport for many of the nation’s commuters, easing the burden on Australia’s congested roads, particularly around major capitals.

Major rail projects are typically well supported by voters, however they often take a back seat to new roads. Over the past 12 months, engineering construction work on railways across Australia totalled $4.14 billion, rising by 8.7% compared with the year prior[1]. However, by comparison, engineering construction work on roads across Australia totalled $18.2 billion over the same period, with annual growth of 15.8%.

Despite an upturn in rail investment and even greater increases in road investment, major economic loss from congestion continues throughout major capitals, supporting the need for a pipeline of new projects as works are completed. Proactive and well-planned investment will be the key to ongoing growth in infrastructure-reliant industries and the economy as a whole.

Investment in rail has the potential to realise the largest productivity gains, as additional services can carry large volumes, drawing commuters out of their cars and onto rail, and reducing congestion across all forms of transport.

 

[1] ABS Catalogue 8762.0

Australia’s investment in rail infrastructure has fluctuated significantly over the five years. Governments have flipped between periods stimulus spending on infrastructure, and austerity-focused cuts to infrastructure spending, both largely in response to ongoing economic uncertainty in the Australian market. Stimulus spending saw the value of railway work reach its peak in December 2012, followed by a major decline, as governments turned their focus to balancing budgets.

While governments maintained some investment in vital rail projects, the decline has placed greater strain on roads, leading to increased congestion and economic drain. The federal government famously chose to back road over rail, and has shied away from supporting city-based infrastructure projects, leaving most rail investment to the states.

Value of engineering work in Australia

Source: ABS Catalogue 8762.0

However, more recently, the inadequacy of the nation’s infrastructure stock has received greater media attention, and policy has returned infrastructure improvement to the fore. Over the past few years it has become increasingly apparent that budget cuts were doing more harm than good, costing the nation jobs and forgoing vital infrastructure improvements that would drive growth. In a bright sign for engineers, a number of major projects have come on line since 2015, and as a result the level of engineering construction work done on railways has risen by 29.4% compared with the same period last year.

Significantly, while work done has grown, the level of scheduled work yet to be done has risen rapidly, increasing by 61% since December 2014. This provides an excellent indication that the nation’s investment in rail infrastructure has turned the corner, with an established pipeline of confirmed projects. While the rising level of work done has already delivered new employment opportunities for the nation’s engineers, the massive stock of planned engineering work that has yet to be completed will provide even larger growth. Overall, the results represent the best signs for growth that rail infrastructure has seen in many years, and the engineering profession will be among the major benefactors.

While there are some positive signs for rail investment, overall it has fared poorly relative to other forms of transport infrastructure. During the global financial crisis, government fuelled a boom in infrastructure investment through stimulus spending. While all forms of infrastructure suffered in the years to follow, road investment has since returned to growth, with levels almost reaching those of 2012. By comparison, rail investment remains relatively subdued, with investment currently settled at pre-crisis levels. While investment across all forms of transport infrastructure is expected to rise to meet a growing population and a expanding freight task, engineers in rail are yet to reap the full benefit of renewed investment.

Current projections of population growth – particularly around major capitals – will necessitate significant infrastructure improvements over the coming decades. The substantial lead time on major projects makes swift investment all the more important, as existing assets face the strain. The national freight task is also expected to grow, and rail will be required to should a portion of this load. While rail infrastructure will undoubtedly face significant challenges over the coming years, these challenges raise excellent opportunities for growth.

State government are gradually recognising the need to improve rail networks to cater for growing populations. This has encouraged a number of major projects, with more proposals in the pipeline. An upturn in scheduled work yet to be done provides the greatest indication that future infrastructure work is likely to increase, while modest economic growth will also encourage governments to bring forward growth-promoting infrastructure spending.

Value of engineering work in Australia

Source: ABS Catalogue 8762.0

The construction industry is of major importance to the Australian workforce—being the third-highest employing industry in the nation. According to IBISWorld data, railway construction and maintenance directly employed 15,073 people during 2016-17[2]. However, this figure is likely to be much larger when considering the engagement of consulting services, and a wide range of other organisations and employees that are engaged in construction more generally. For the same period, the construction sector is expected to employ over one million people, representing approximately 9.0 per cent of total employment across. Investment in Australia’s rail networks is responsible for a significant portion of this employment.

Railway construction and maintenance employment in Australia

Source: ABS Catalogue 8762.0

While employment in 2016-17 currently sits 22.6% lower than during its 2012-13 peak, the announcement of several new projects has seen the overall number of professionals employed in rail construction and maintenance rise over the past year. This growth is expected to continue over the near term as more projects come online, before stabilising throughout the construction phase. The large backlog of rail infrastructure projects across Australia is likely to establish a new base level of employment for the industry, as completed projects are quickly replaced with new initiatives, absorbing the workforce and providing new opportunities for employment. For example, Victoria has sought to develop a pipeline of projects through its level crossing removals, where project teams are readily available to move onto new level crossing removals once existing projects have been completed. This has provided a steady stream of work for engineers in rail, and is likely to provide continued opportunities going forward.

Career prospects for engineers are intrinsically linked to the performance and size of major engineering industries. Industries undergoing growth tend to invest to expand their operations, while major areas of employment such as railway construction and maintenance tend to maintain a stock of engineers. Job vacancy statistics can provide key insights into the performance of an industry and whether employers expect demand to expand over the short to medium term.

Civil engineering job vacancies by state

Source: Department of Employment – Internet Vacancies Index

According to data from the Department of Employment, civil engineering roles accounted for 58.0% of advertised engineering positions over the past year. Within the Australian market, civil engineering skills have the broadest range of applications, and comprise the majority of roles in rail. While the level of rail work done tends to fluctuate over the years, the overall volume necessitates a large number of technical professionals, providing opportunities for civil engineers. The number of advertised civil engineering roles has increased over the past 12 months, providing a raft of new opportunities for civil engineers. According to the latest data from the Department of Employment, the number of advertised civil engineering roles increased by 17.1% compared with the same period last year. This growth indicates that employment prospects for civil engineers are improving, and qualified candidates are likely to find suitable employment upon entering the market.

Civil engineering vacancies map

Source: Department of Employment – Internet Vacancies Index

 

[2] IBISWorld, Industry Reports OD5135 & OD5525

In May 2017, Professionals Australia surveyed professional engineers across Australia regarding remuneration and conditions in their workplace. Engineers employed in the rail sector reported a median base salary of $110,000 and a median total package of $121,888. This result places engineers in rail around the middle of the pack, with a median total package much higher than the $102,221 received by engineers in construction, but well short of the $152,950 received by engineers in the power sector.

Engineer remuneration and wage growth in the rail sector – by responsibility level

Source: Professionals Australia, Professional Engineer Employment and Remuneration Report: 2017

However, from a growth perspective, engineers in rail fared particularly well, with wage growth over the past year rating among the highest in the engineering profession. Growth in salaries across the engineering profession is closely linked to the performance and strength of each industry. Strong-performing industries with a rising revenue base and ongoing demand tend to deliver solid salary growth for their engineering employees, with staff recognised for their contribution to growth. Conversely, the weaker performance of other industries is reflected in relatively modest wage increases, as organisations seek to drive profit through cost controls rather than revenue growth.

Overall, engineers in rail reported strong wage growth over the past year, with remuneration rising by 2.8% year on year. This growth represents a strong outperformance of the Wage Price Index (WPI), which rose at 1.9%. Overall, this growth is a good sign for the engineers in rail, as it points to rising demand for engineering skill and recognition of the importance of technical expertise. Salaries also significantly outperformed the consumer price index (CPI) over the past year, which increased by a modest 2.1%. While the past year has been marked by weaker wage growth across many professions, this strong outperformance points to growth in real wages across the rail sector.

Wage growth tended to be higher at lower levels, as engineers rapidly grew in capability and skill. Engineers at lower levels also tend to earn lower wages overall, meaning that higher percentage rises are required in order to deliver meaningful wage growth. However, it is important to note that even engineers at the highest responsibility levels outperformed wage growth across the wider economy.

Congestion

Over the past decade, the level of congestion in major cities across Australia has risen exponentially. With the majority of people working in and around central business districts, the ability to move freely within cities and inner suburbs is vital. However, the current level of congestion is costing the nation economically, leading to massive waste and the nations remains stuck in gridlock, losing productivity.

The scope for major improvements to road networks within cities and inner suburbs is limited, as existing development limits space, and new roads tend to shift bottlenecks rather than eliminate them. Rail, however, presents real opportunities for productivity gains, by shifting consumers off roads and by creating new connections, previously not catered for by public transit.

These improvements will be realised through a range of initiatives, including new railways, tunnels across cities, level crossing removals, high-capacity rolling stock, and better equipment that less prone to failure. These initiatives will allow trains to run on routes that previously have not existed, and they will allow higher density services on existing routes, with less down time.

Currently, level crossings and older trains limit the number of commuters that any given line can handle, and services are running at capacity during peak periods, and the need to keep level crossings open limits the number of services that can be run. By removing level crossings through an entire line, and by purchasing high-capacity trains, commuting by rail will become a much more attractive prospect, opening up new capacity on our nation’s transport networks.

Cities and growth

As Australia’s population expands, and as the economy moves into the future, capital cities are becoming increasingly the focal points of our society. The majority of population growth is occurring around major capitals, with the majority of jobs located in these areas. Additionally, the rural population is increasingly being forced to move towards major cities, as many of the traditional rural or regional industries slow down, and major services industries grow rapidly.

As a result, our cities are expanding, and the urban sprawl is growing. This is necessitating major new investment in rail infrastructure. Rail lines are being extended to meet the new fringe suburbs, with the vast majority of new growth occurring in these areas. Rail line extensions are being incorporated into planning for new suburbs, as firm public transport connections are a key selling point for new housing developments. Growth corridors require rail connections, as arterial roads leading towards the city tend to suffer from bottlenecks.

The trend towards urban living and the continuing urban sprawl show no sign of slowing, and it is likely to impact all capital cities over the coming five years. According to the ABS, Australia’s population reached almost 24.5 million at the end of 2016.[3] If Infrastructure Australia’s projects come to fruition, this figure will rise to 30.5 million by 2031, requiring ongoing new rail investment.

Opportunities for engineers are likely to rise accordingly, as the profession grows to manage both major new investment, and the new stock of infrastructure and rolling stock requiring maintenance. Engineers with suitable qualifications are will likely find new employment opportunities easy to come by over the coming years.