“We call for more wine without investing in the vineyard”: why we should care more about construction skills

Not enough of these fellas. Image: Getty.

On the 19 February 1879, construction began on Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building. On 28 July 1923, it was the turn of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge.

These dates are recalled, because people mark such beginnings. We make them visible. Ribbon-cutting, sod-turning, plaque-mounting – ways to say to stakeholders, this starts now: it will be money well spent. This project will move us forward.

We make growth visible too. We count cranes in year-quarters, with September’s report showing a record-breaking five hundred plus propping up the skies of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane alone.

Yet what of the critical human component to all projects – skills? How do we mark the achievement of acquiring a workforce able to deliver some of the most complex infrastructure projects in the world? What visible measures do we have to show there is present-day skills capacity or that we will meet future demand?

The Consult Australia 2016 Skills Survey is one such tool – but the fluctuations it shows suggest more visible indicators are needed at a much greater frequency. It shows more than two thirds (69 per cent) of large consulting firms working in the built environment now express concern over a nationwide skills shortage, compared to 8 per cent just two years ago. Over half of all large firms are struggling to recruit civil, traffic, and structural engineers too, rising to 75 per cent and 81 per  cent in New South Wales and Victoria respectively.

The reality is that, whilst we marvel, applaud and celebrate the visible in the built environment, we often neglect the invisible, and fail to plan for future skills demand. We call for more wine without investing in the vineyard.

The survey also shows it is currently taking firms two years to fill mid-level roles compared to approximately two months in 2014. Only 46 per cent of large, medium and small firms are very optimistic they will find the skills to compete over the next three years.

This gloom is in part caused by boom – this year, economic growth in New South Wales and Victoria, is estimated to be 6.1 per cent and 6.4 per cent respectively. Heavy investment in public infrastructure and construction has led to demand outstripping supply which in the short-term is resolved by recruiting migrants on Section 457 visas. Collectively, these skilled professionals maintain Australia’s economic growth. Individually, they contribute spend whilst adding social, cultural and educational value.

Longer term the solution is different. Most state governments have joined Infrastructure Australia in producing long-term infrastructure plans, critical for the alleviation of rollercoaster fluctuations in supply and demand.

It is only by mapping out predicted growth and anticipated projects, by undertaking gap analyses and working backwards from future date 10, 20, or 30 years from now, that there can be an appreciation of the scale of the challenges and opportunities ahead, and an appropriate strategy can be developed. To paraphrase ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky, it is about skating to where the puck is going not to where it has been.

Without a long-term strategy, debate around Section 457 visas will continue to be politicised, zooming in on short-term retrospective data, when it needs to zoom out, be contextualised and part of a long-term conversation about what skills Australia needs to sustain economic growth.


Challenges around gender imbalance, with most firms in the Consult Australia survey employing less than a third (29 per cent) of women, would continue without targets in place to ensure cities are shaped by both genders for both genders.

There would be no framework for state or territory plans to feed into as per the national “Infrastructure Skills Plan”, referenced in the Infrastructure Australia Plan released earlier this year.

Yet as with all long-term plans, it is essential to provide short-term visible outcomes to maintain strategic direction, and aid those, notably politicians and shareholders, who work in shorter cycles.

This is why it is critical there is a concerted effort to make visible the people-part of built-environment projects. Promote the foundation stone but promote too graduates of the foundation course who laid it; gather local and national media for sod-turning but gather more for corner-turning as a company hits the 50 per cent female recruitment mark; unveil a plaque that on this day this project began, but also unveil your team, the people who will make it happen and the challenges faced to bring them together.

Make skills visible, make scarcity or abundance known – and help push for a strategic approach to future skills development in Australia.

Kevin Keith works for built environment body Consult Australia. The 2016 Consult Australia Skills Survey is available here. He tweets as @KevKeith.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.