Serious About Playing with Trains

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-By John Boley

Greg Forbes, managing director of C2CE, has a long track record – pun intended. This is a highly specialised company focussing on capital work in railways. It has two distinct areas of business – one being public infrastructure (metros, regional rail links and the like – working for clients such as V-Line in Victoria, ARTC, which is the regional provider for Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia – and the other being the private sector, working in particular for the mining majors such as BHP or Rio Tinto.

Restructured quite recently, C2CE started life several years ago as Proteus Infrastructure, part of the Proteus Global Solutions group “which operated in the oil and gas and mining sector. We did all of the wayside signalling and asset protection installation for the initial build for FMG, for example,” says Greg. That company was then sold to an international oil and gas corporation in 2009, “and we reformed C2CE from that because that company was not interested in specialising in rail.”

Greg has been with the company since those days, having launched Proteus Infrastructure too, and has been involved with rail for at least 20 years, mainly in the systems and software area. He has worked on a number of major projects such as the station management system in Hong Kong for five years. All C2CE’s other key personnel have similarly extensive experience in the rail industry.

C2CE is somewhat unusual in that it straddles both the electrical and construction sectors of rail, mainly in installation though there is some maintenance work as well. The public sector, says Greg, is more buoyant than might be imagined from the consistent news about budget cuts. “There are some major projects under way, for example the regional rail link in Victoria which is a four billion dollar scheme. In South Australia there is a metro upgrade project which is just starting. That’s another four billion dollar project over ten years.” Large public infrastructure projects tend to be over a rather extended timeframe, he points out (typically at a rate of perhaps $300-400 million per year for ten years) whereas the mining sector would carry out such projects much faster.

The most obvious difference about miners in comparison to the public rail companies is that the former want it now and Greg says they are willing to pay commensurately. As an example he cites one job, the Rio Tinto ATO (automatic train operation) project, which is worth some 500 million dollars – “they want to implement this over the next two years. The pressure is there to implement quickly because for them the commercial return is significant.” That is the major difference from the public sector, where there is only a set amount of money per year – “it’s a different outlook.”

For C2CE, there is something of a challenge in striking a balance between public and private and not ignoring the public sector, Greg admits, “but to a certain extent you have to be where the work is.” The approach to the two sectors is quite different – in the private sector, there is often a greater focus on alliances and partnerships, whereas for public work there is always a hard tender, so the cost of winning work is probably a bit higher. Greg notes that there is also greater consistency in the public sector, with the private sector less predictable on a long-term basis.

Across the board, “we believe there is significant growth to be had for us in the next five to ten years because there are public infrastructure projects going on and significant work in the mining sector as well.”

C2CE has offices in Perth and Melbourne and currently about 80 staff, and Greg says that is due to rise to around 130 by June with the projects the company has in hand. “We are taking on engineering staff as well as tradesmen. We have a lot of work going on up north at the moment in Karratha and the Pilbara so we are looking primarily for plant operators and electricians up there, as well as project managers and supervisors, and to support that activity we are also looking for engineering staff in our Melbourne office.”

Is it difficult at the moment to find suitable staff? “We seem to be attracting people. The main challenge for us is the amount of time it takes to put new staff through training courses to qualify them to go on site. Just finding people takes time as they come from various backgrounds, but at present we do appear to be able to satisfy our requirements without having to go abroad.

“We have a good reputation, especially for safety, which helps. Word of mouth works for us.” The company is managing to retain a sufficient fly in-fly out workforce although “the quality is sometimes debatable, so we spend a lot of time reviewing [appointments] because we have to maintain that reputation. Currently our focus is more on getting experienced and reliable people than sheer numbers.”

It’s also key to bring people in and keep them for the long haul (so they can see a project through to completion) which is undoubtedly difficult for the FIFO workforce who sometimes has the mentality of wanting to work remote for a year or two to make some money and then come back to the city. “But our projects can be five years in length and you do really want to try to maintain the team because they get more and more efficient as they go along. So there is a lot of HR work to develop that culture to help us maintain staff.”

C2CE rarely finds itself in competition with its clients to recruit good staff. “We find ourselves in a fairly unique position as we are doing civil work as well as engineering, whereas some of our competitors just do one side or the other and this gives our teams greater scope and variety. I think that helps in retaining staff.”

The company’s teams face a constant stream of new and evolving technology – such as driverless trains – and the consequent need to keep up with it and understand it. “Generally we are taking someone else’s technology and putting our engineering expertise around it. C2CE tends to be manufacturer-agnostic and independent; we do need to make sure we do all the training and product learning necessary and have the experience and skill set to keep up to date with the technology.”

Rail technology is generally global, but C2CE has not yet done any international work. Right now there is enough on Greg’s plate, he says, for him to focus primarily on Australia, “but we have a watching brief and we are looking at the potential for expansion into Asia and also Africa, where there is quite a lot of activity, especially in the mining sector.” If and when C2CE dips its foot into the global pool it will be well placed seeing as Australian and UK standards are right at the top of the engineering tree.

The company does a small amount of electrical work that is not rail-based but “generally we try to stick to our core expertise.” However, Greg explains, if the company has a team up in the Pilbara working on a rail site and a client asks if they can do some work on a conveyor belt, for example, “we would probably take that kind of work on because we would have the people in place. We stay focussed, being a young company that has been growing quickly. But as we build our systems and capabilities we may later be able to branch out.”

Is there much difference between moving people and moving freight? “Yes,” Greg says, “because of the distances involved and the volumes. If you look at mining they are vast, the trains are enormous and the stopping distance is huge, from a safety perspective – it’s a different problem set than in the people moving business which is a lot faster, more frequent, more stops. You need to think somewhat differently about the two, although there is a basic commonality in wanting to move as much as you can through that corridor in the shortest time possible.”

Greg emphasises that safety for C2CE is not just about rail integrity but also about safety of his staff. “We talk about intrinsically safe systems in rail applications and the systems in place in Australia and elsewhere work very well.” But there is more risk in the construction side so “we have taken what from my experience is a slightly unusual step of bringing an oil and gas safety view to bear on the construction world, which is a step up. It’s a slow process, involving big cultural change, but with the aim of getting people thinking about it every minute of the day.

“Safety a real focus for us – keeping all our people safe.” It’s not even expensive to be safe, he agrees – it’s more of a mindset than anything. “There is a cost to implement, but it’s amortised over many years so the cost is insignificant and in any case, what’s the cost of a life? It’s non-negotiable. We also encourage all our staff to get involved in the process and look for better ways of doing things.” It’s proving to be a winning approach thus far.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

July 16, 2020, 9:44 AM AEST