Coleman Rail was established in its’ current form in 2002 with the purchase of the staff, plant and assets of a small rail company. After 4 years of operation as an independent organisation, Coleman was sold into the Geotech Group, providing the business with a number of significant advantages. Geotech owns two other operating companies; Geotechnical Engineering, a piling and ground engineering company with a civil engineering capacity, and John Beever Engineering, a contractor specialises in mechanical engineering. Through these businesses, Coleman Rail has access to a full suite of construction skills provided by in-house resources. The company has experienced rapid and consistent growth since, with current annual sales of approximately $150 million.
“Our philosophy has always been to confine our business to rail related works thus ensuring our workforce remains familiar with the rail environment and maintains the required skills” explains Chris Morralee, Coleman Rail’s Managing Director. “We will build virtually any fixed infrastructure within a rail network.” Coleman maintains the in-house capacity to construct civil works, track, overhead line electrification, traction power, and signalling systems, as well as to install and commission vehicle maintenance machinery. The business is split into heavy rail and light rail divisions, accommodating for the different discipline requirements for both sectors. At present, Coleman Rail has the only full-time light rail crew in Australia, carrying out a significant portion of light rail renewal and construction in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Sydney.
While also carrying out projects for heavy haul networks, as well as works on country passenger and freight lines, Coleman Rail’s core business focus is light rail and metropolitan heavy rail work. “We see that our in-house resources and the range of skills that they offer best fit into the metropolitan network,” says Chris. “Our directly employed workforce with its diverse range of skills provides particular advantages when undertaking multidiscipline works on live or occupied assets in that we are able to minimise the time taken for a given scope of works without compromising safety and quality. Thus minimising the disruption and risk to the network operations.”
While the environmental aspects of rail infrastructure is largely driven by the needs and desires of the client, Coleman Rail works to implement sustainability elements into its designs whenever feasible. “From our own business operations point of view, the greatest contribution to sustainability that we can make is to be efficient;” Mr Morralee says. “Efficient use of resources of all types minimises our costs and simultaneously minimises our projects impact on the environment.”
Chris emphasises the rail sector’s working environment presents inherent risk to the safety of a workforce and conversely construction activities give rise to risk to rail operations. Both of these risk sets can only be effectively managed if the workforce is well trained, experienced and working to a carefully considered plan. “Like other companies in our business, we have elaborate systems to help manage our health and safety,” he says. “We push a very hard line in emphasising every employee’s responsibility for their own health and safety, the safety of those around them, as well as the protection of the assets that we’re working on.”
In addition to the new Sydney light rail project, Coleman Rail is currently engaged in the redevelopment of Melbourne’s Preston tram Workshops. The company has been tasked with a design and construction contract to transform a collection of Heritage listed buildings into a modern heavy maintenance and repair facility for Melbourne’s tram fleet, as well as the construction of an operational and stabling base for 75 of the city’s new e-class trams. “We continue to be active in the light rail market in Melbourne, and wherever else light rail will come up,” Chris says, noting the company’s preparation for a number of projects in the near future, including Newcastle and Parramatta Light Rail projects. Mr Morralee also foresees great prospects for Coleman in Queensland in the coming years. “We have had a presence in the State for a number of years,” he continues, “and we see excellent opportunities for growth.”
Much of Coleman Rail’s work is completed during short occupations of otherwise live rail lines; this necessitates 24-hour continuous shift work to minimise the time the rail asset is occupied. To complete large-scale projects within very short timeframes it is imperative that a high level of trust is developed between the company and its clients, suppliers and subcontractors. Chris notes “This trust is very important to the way we operate, and can only be developed through the forging of long-term relationships with our clients and suppliers.”
In addition to its Federal Safety Accreditation, Coleman Rail is an Accredited Rail Operator. Proud of the growth that the company has achieved in the market, as well as the position and reputation that it has developed..
The lack of continuity of work and predictable flow of works coming to market within the sector stands as one of the greatest challenges to the advancement of Australia’s rail construction capability. “The majority of funds that flow down to us to carry out projects come from State and Federal governments,” explains Mr Morralee. “Projects are often brought to market in unpredictable spurts, making it difficult to manage the retention of skills and growth of the business.” In many cases, businesses such as Coleman assemble very large teams to complete high-profile works, such as the Regional Rail Link project in Melbourne. “We, with our joint venture partners, built a very large, highly skilled team to undertake over $600 million worth of work,” Chris continues. “At the end of that, there was nothing so the team dispersed and a valuable resource has been lost. It would be nice if the governments would develop and bring projects to market in a more even and predictable way, which would allow for skills to be retained and further developed within the industry.”
Chris Morralee has been working within the Australian construction industry for the last 30 years; first for Lewis Construction Company, and later as John Holland’s operations manager for the Southern Region. “I felt that a challenge with a smaller business would be interesting, and so we set up Coleman Rail,” he says. “I’ve been very happy with the way it’s gone, and my role within the company has been rather fun.”