Future rail: part of the world

Atkins | 26 Sep 2014 | Comments

Increased demand, advances in design and technology and increased investment have seen rail become a leader in sustainable transport. Atkins’ chief executive officer Professor Dr Uwe Krueger explores the evolution of a global rail network and the drivers behind its development.

In 1800, the German Romantic writer Jean Paul made the observation that Berlin “ist mehr Weltteil al seine Stadt” – a part of the world rather than a city. Much the same can be said of international rail today.

Efficient links between towns, cities and countries have never been more critical. Where business and industry form the heartbeat, sustainable transport networks form the arteries. This interdependency is vital to cultural and economic growth, and could lead to a global rail network.

The challenges and opportunities for the rail market in the coming years will be driven by three main factors: urbanisation, technology and sustainability in its fullest sense.


The world is anticipated to reach nine billion people by 2050, with 75 per cent of the global population expected to live in urban areas. Cities themselves will change as well: it has been projected that there will be 41 “mega-cities” around the world by 2030, each with populations of 10 million or more.

A legacy of ineffective public transport planning and a surge in travel demands could quickly cripple public infrastructure, leaving it unable to cope with passenger numbers.

“Future proofing” this brave new world involves evolutionary change: adaptation of existing assets, additional capacity and new infrastructure designed to withstand future risks.

Whole-journey thinking will be required to ensure that inter-modal travel within urban areas is supported by local transport connections and payment systems that operate across all modes and providers. High speed rail and metros could hold the key.

High speed rail alone is expected to attract $900 billion in global investment between 2010 and 2020. It can shape economic geographies and form part of a wider strategic plan so that investment can be judged against a contribution to economic growth, social cohesion and environmental improvement. These intentions are at the heart of the UK’s High Speed 2 (HS2) project, a planned state-of-the-art high-speed railway between London, the English Midlands and North.

Similarly, “Flagship City Investments” in urban transit metro systems have become increasingly popular in the Middle and Far East, with notable highlights in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

These future rail networks require visionary leadership. The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, made this clear when he asked Atkins to design a metro that was not only technically advanced but attractive in design. The number of passengers using the lines has exceeded all expectations – quite remarkable for a city that was once as congested as LA during rush hour.

The future networks will ensure that cities, mega-cities and surrounding regions can deliver economic growth, have access to the workforce they need and offer people communities where they want to live and work, even with the ongoing spread of urbanisation.


Technology will deliver a “smart” approach to the challenge of urbanisation, allowing the rail sector to support a new wave of economic growth while delivering the ambitions of our increasingly smart cities.

For example, the introduction of the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS) is facilitating greater interoperability, which will boost cross-border services. In future, this will enable transport networks to create intermodal hubs by bringing together high-speed, metro and light rail with other forms of travel.

Denmark is already seeing clear benefits in rail technology investment. Atkins is helping to deliver Banedanmark’s ERTMS project, which includes the complete re-signalling of the country and the introduction of a Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) system in Copenhagen.

We must innovate to create new solutions and cost efficiencies. But this cannot be achieved in isolation. Several leading engineering firms have forged alliances with research institutions and universities to address this challenge. For example, Atkins recently agreed a strategic cooperation with Heriot-Watt University to create a Centre of Excellence for High Speed Rail and Atkins, together with several other companies and organisations, supports the rail education programme at the Danish Technical University.

New technology relating to ticketing, passenger preferences and overall travel patterns, informed by Big Data, will prove similarly influential in future.

Big Data provides insight into how systems work, how people move and make travel and spending choices, and can be used to influence behaviour and refine operations. Real-time diagnostic information on asset performance is now helping the rail industry manage its assets more efficiently and effectively under increasingly punishing usage cycles allowing great savings in costs.

Composites and other advanced and smart materials are also having an impact – Atkins is part of a consortium, led by London Underground, which developed a commercially feasible lightweight train door using state-of-the-art composite materials. And there is more to come, including carbon composites in modern bridge design and geo-textiles for more cost effective construction and lightweight yet extremely durable structures.

Implementation of new systems and technologies such as these is happening at different rates around the world as regions and countries try to shape the future of their transport systems to move people and to stimulate their economies. But developing regions and cities are moving fast to design and build new metros and inter-urban rail networks, with high-speed investment following.

Technology will be a catalyst for change not only in the way existing networks are enhanced and new lines are delivered, but also in the systems that support the wider integration of transport and travel needs across modes.


While urbanisation drives the evolution of the railways and technology makes it happen, pressure builds on both environmental and economic sustainability.

In environmental terms, the rail industry can be proud that it is responsible for only seven per cent of global CO₂ emissions in the transport sector as a whole. But the industry must not rest on its laurels. Through the International Union of Railways (UIC), it has set ambitious long-term targets for CO₂ reduction.

These discussions are playing a growing part in building the case for new metro and light rail systems. An electric train, for example, produces around a third of the CO₂ of an equivalent journey by car.

But policy is not keeping up with the demands being placed on rail networks. This is holding the industry back. As Sir John Armitt recommended in his review of UK infrastructure planning, we must break free of short term political pressures and build momentum on policy and investment. Doing so will allow the industry to take greater advantage of new approaches to rail, such as transport oriented development (TOD), which allows for the creation of commercial business, such as retail, restaurants and offices, inside and around transport hubs.

The Hong Kong Metro is a great example of success here, with a third of its income now coming from non-fare revenues. This can provide sustainable economic viability by spreading financial risk and creating new sources of income.

The combination of first class infrastructure with commercial enterprise at St Pancras International station in London is another example. This has created a place where people not only come to travel to Europe and elsewhere in the UK, but also to relax and enjoy the wide range of shops and services.

If these issues can be overcome, railways will be key in moving people and goods over long distances and between the megacities of the future, supporting sustainable economic development.

Making it happen

The rail sector must ensure that it is sitting at the table with politicians, economists and scientists, and informing robust decision making. Explaining and solving the technical challenges faced by the evolving railway will help deliver transformational rail and mass transit systems that people will really want to use. It will also address issues such as how to reduce the carbon footprint or decrease the land-take needed for new and existing lines.

The sector must convince politics and politicians to make the major decisions and stick to them, to be steadfast with a long-term view – and then to let the industry deal with project management and delivery. Then the public will see infrastructure being delivered on time and budget.

Then we could drastically improve the business case for developing modern systems and ensure that we deliver a global rail network, a new era for transport that links people, places, goods and skills so that, as a sector, we can make the most of the opportunities ahead.

In so doing, rail can finally become a part of the world.

This feature is based on a speech given by Atkins’ chief executive officer Professor Dr Uwe Krueger at the 2014 Innotrans Conference (24 September 2014).

Please read more of our Rail Focus features:

Rail ramps up in the Middle East

Rail electrification in the UK: going live?

Building future rail

Channel Tunnel: a shared history

Getting around the Gulf

Ringing in the interchanges

Metro for the metorpolitans

High Speed Rail: all aboard?

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