Metro for the metropolitans

Atkins | 10 Apr 2013 | Comments

While the London Underground opened its doors in 1863, for much of the world, a fully functional metro system remains an expensive dream to be fulfilled. Yet cities are finding the finances and making the investment. What is it about metro systems that is so appealing?

From Doha to Hong Kong and from Dubai to Copenhagen, Atkins’ expertise is playing a vital part in the race to deliver some of the most exciting and innovative metro projects in the world. Despite the economic downturn, the market for new, refurbished and extended metro systems continues to boom, driven by soaring urban populations, congestion and concerns about climate change.

Typically, construction costs range from £30m-£250m per kilometre. That’s around twice as expensive as building light rail and ten times more than laying tramways. Dedicated bus systems are cheaper still. Why do so many cities take the metro route?

According to Anne-Grethe Foss, CEO of Metroselskabet, the Copenhagen Metro operator, it’s about achieving long-term value for money: “Metro is the most expensive in terms of construction costs, but if you look at the lifetime costs, metro is better than the other two systems. It attracts more passengers and doesn’t cost as much to operate.”

Building bright new stations and providing reliable, comfortable trains – the Copenhagen Metro has both – attracts new passengers and helps to achieve the transport planners’ Holy Grail: modal shift. This means luring people out of cars and onto other less polluting modes of transport.

Metro systems also offer a degree of cachet that other modes of public transport lack. That’s important because it helps to attract people who might not normally use public transport.

“Passengers have a choice, so the aesthetic dimension is very important,” says Foss, one of Europe’s most experienced rail executives and a qualified architect. “The metro is attractive. We get passengers who would never use a bus. People want to be part of the metro and they like to say they’re using it because they’re helping to cut down on CO2 emissions.”

The decision to build the Copenhagen Metro – which opened in 2002 and is undergoing further expansion – was driven by a desire to spur growth in the city. It also minimised the environmental impacts associated with the developments related to the construction of the Øresund Bridge, which links Copenhagen with Malmö in Sweden and has created a virtual metropolitan area with a population of more than two million.

Dealing with development

The forces shaping the decision to build new metros – and to upgrade existing ones – differ from city to city, says Paul Abbosh, regional development director for Atkins in the Middle East.

“The most important factor in rapidly developing economies such as India and China is the large-scale migration of people from the countryside to the cities,” Abbosh says.

“In places such as Doha and Dubai, it’s about keeping a growing marketplace functioning. If you’re looking to develop a city as a service centre or a centre for tourism and shopping, you need to keep it moving and not let people get snarled up in traffic.”

With more than half of the global population now living in cities and around 600,000 million vehicles jostling for space on the world’s increasingly congested roads, it’s clear that efficient metro systems are essential to economic survival.

Take Hong Kong, a key market for Atkins: rail is the backbone of its public transport system, embracing everything from light rail through to heavy metro with fast trains. It’s one of the most densely populated metropolitan regions on earth and it’s geographically complex: the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region includes both the New Territories and Hong Kong Island.

Hong Kong’s population has grown rapidly over the past 30 years. The current population, now more than seven million, is up three million from 1975. Hong Kong’s rail system is acknowledged to be one of the world’s safest and most reliable. Almost all of it has been built in the past 30 years.

“The railways here are essentially new build,” says John Blackwood, director of rail for Atkins. “Hong Kong has adopted a highly integrated approach to railway development and there are close links between transport and urban planning.” Property development in Hong Kong is closely co-ordinated with new rail construction. It’s a symbiotic relationship, which cuts the risk for rail operators and property developers alike. The close link between railways and property development is nothing new. Back in 1915, London’s Metropolitan Railway created the concept of “Metro-land” as a way to promote its train services. The company bought up rural land beside its new lines and developed it, thus creating a ready supply of passengers and, in the process, creating a model of suburban development that spread worldwide.

Today, few rail operators would be willing or able to speculate in this way. Constructing a metro system is expensive and getting such projects off the ground often involves state or municipal support. In the Gulf States, that might take the form of direct funding from sovereign wealth funds. In Hong Kong, development rights awarded to the railway operator once provided majority support, though this is changing to a more diversified system of funding. Metro financing in Copenhagen is generated by sales of green field areas belonging to the state and the local authorities.

Perfect partnerships

Rail development is an increasingly collaborative exercise and it’s one in which Atkins plays a major part.

“We advise clients across the board,” says Abbosh. “They include government authorities, ministries, municipalities and developers creating work, rest and play-type developments that require transport.”

Arguments about sustainability are also playing a growing part in building a case for new metro systems. Taking an electric train, for example, produces around a third of the CO2 of an equivalent journey by car. That’s just one facet of the case for rail. Particulate emissions are lower, less land is required than for roads and metro journeys are invariably faster, as well as safer, than car journeys.

But urban design that’s based on rail is sustainable in other ways too, notes Abbosh: “If you can reduce road trips around your development by putting in place a sensible transport policy, you can build at higher density. If you can build denser, you get more profit.”

Metro Middle East

Doha, the capital city of the State of Qatar, has ambitious plans to upgrade its infrastructure as part of its 2030 masterplan. This includes a metro system linking the airport with the city centre and other busy areas. But there is an important milestone on the way to 2030 for Qatar – its hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022. The initial segments of the metro will be in operation before 2022 in order to transport fans to the various stadia in and around the city – the metro will be vital in ensuring smooth transportation during this historic event. In 2011, Atkins was appointed by the Government of Qatar to set up and run a new Central Planning Office, the role of which is to oversee and co-ordinate the work of the various authorities implementing major infrastructure projects over the coming decade. The work includes ensuring that the various transport systems provide an integrated, multi-modal solution, with the metro as its backbone. In common with metros around the world, the Doha metro will be underground within the congested city centre: Atkins is also advising on the sequencing of the metro and other infrastructure projects to ensure that disruption is kept to a minimum while construction takes place.

In Dubai, the initial segment of the region’s first metro system was opened in 2009 and the second line two years later. Commissioned by Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), the Dubai Metro is designed to reduce congestion, improve travel times and cut pollution. Atkins was the design consultant for the Dubai Rapid Link Consortium, the project contractor. “It was a major initiative,” stresses Abbosh. “Everything was achieved at a fast pace and on a considerable scale. It included 75km of track, 47 stations, nine tunnels, three depots and three car parks. The challenge, in terms of co-ordination and logistics, was to deliver it with minimum interference to the surrounding city.” Now fully operational, the Dubai Metro is the world’s longest driverless system. It is also one of the best appointed, with elegant architect-designed stations and swift, comfortable trains complete with wireless information systems.

Success in driving forward major metro projects continues to earn Atkins prestige contracts around the world. These include high-profile implementations such as the systems integration contract for the Makkah metro in Saudi Arabia, which provides safe, comfortable transportation for Hajj pilgrims. “The Dubai Metro enabled us to build up expertise in the civil design of railways here in the Middle East, and the Makkah metro demonstrates the other string to our bow, which is the rail systems side,” says John Newby, a director of infrastructure with Atkins. “It’s enabling us to show the full range of services on metros.”

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