Rail is undergoing a global renaissance. China’s high-speed network reached the 10,000km mark at the end of 2013, while in the UK, more than £42bn has been earmarked for the creation of HS2, the high speed line designed to bridge the north-south divide with trains travelling at up to 400kmh.
Demand for rail is growing everywhere and it is being driven by urbanisation. Meeting this demand requires evolutionary change: existing assets will require adaptation, while new infrastructure must be designed with the ability to handle challenges that cannot be predicted easily.
Delivering this change means prioritising the efficient use of both materials and energy while continuing to meet the highest standards of quality and safety. A holistic approach to problem-solving, modelling and dealing with interdependencies between risks is also needed.
All of this requires a new kind of design, engineering and delivery. Four areas will require particular focus. First is the need to address the scale of the urbanisation challenge. Second is building the economic case for rail. Third is dealing with challenges such as skills shortages and infrastructure limitations. And fourth is the need for greater collaboration.
The global population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. By then, 75 per cent of people will live in cities.
Population increases and urbanisation are acute challenges being faced everywhere, but especially in developing economies. It is not surprising that countries in the Asia Pacific region and Africa are responding with investment in rail networks as a key coping strategy.
The key to attracting investment is to get the business case right. Denmark’s rail modernisation programme – which includes the world’s first nationwide re-signalling scheme – is a good example of how a compelling business case to deliver national infrastructure upgrades can be made.
The economic case
Global demand for high speed rail is expected to grow rapidly over the next 15 years. One of engineering’s roles will be to provide solutions which deliver confidence to our clients that their investments will be realised.
Connected cities can quickly evolve into city regions, even mega regions. This delivers both short and medium-term economic benefits.
In the UK, the development of high speed rail has been described by government as the “most significant transportation infrastructure project since the building of the motorways… laying the groundwork for long-term, sustainable economic growth”.
The arrival of HS2 will extend the reach of Birmingham – the UK’s second biggest city – as a city region, with enhanced links north to Leeds and Manchester, and south to London.
In France, high speed rail has linked the nation’s leading cities and delivered connectivity with northern Europe, the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany.
Denmark’s Fehmarnbelt fixed link will connect eastern Denmark with the rest of Europe via a 19km immersed tunnel and promises to deliver growth for the region. Atkins is delivering the execution and implementation of railway safety services throughout all project phases until the commissioning of the railway.
In South Africa, the Gautrain project will help to grow the economy of the Gauteng province by an estimated eight per cent by the end of 2014. Some 40,000 local jobs will be created by new developments on top of 63,000 jobs created by the project itself.
Urbanisation and the expansion of rail present great opportunities – but making the most of these will depend upon attracting the best engineers against a backdrop of a global shortage of skilled workers.
Two things work against the industry here. First, banks and other institutions are able to offer higher salaries and attract engineers away from the sector. Second, a demographic shift means many of the baby-boomer generation have retired from the industry in recent years.
The ambition to reduce costs while dealing with the economic realities of supply and demand also presents a significant challenge. The industry must continue to collaborate and develop cutting-edge technology to ensure cost reductions can be realised.
In the case of high speed rail, there is a need to ensure that the technical challenges associated with safety at high and ultra-high speeds are fully understood.
Trains already run at very high speeds; the issue is whether current track technology is able to support this in the long term. In some cases, trains are run below target speed because of the impact on track infrastructure.
Significant research is required to develop design guidelines on which track type is best suited for a particular application and speed. Advances in track technology could also reduce noise and vibration associated with high speed rail.
By analysing high-speed running on test rigs, for example, it is possible to measure and mitigate noise and vibration impacts. The ability to do this could be of huge benefit in winning support for new high speed rail projects.
It is clear that a holistic approach is required for high speed railway design that encompasses trains’ suspension systems, track form, ground conditions, drainage and operational maintenance regimes, so that track technology can address the challenges that the industry will face in future.
Need for collaboration
Collaboration will play a vital part in meeting the complexity of the challenges outlined above. Partnerships, both in academia and business, will help to drive innovation.
An example is the memorandum of understanding Atkins signed with Heriot-Watt University in the UK to establish a Centre of Excellence for High Speed Rail. This collaboration now extends to the Middle East and Malaysia through the university’s own international programme.
In Denmark, Atkins supports the rail education programme at the Danish Technical University through the Danish Rail Sector Association (BaneBranchen).
In Sweden, Atkins works closely with several rail-related schools ranging from the technical institutes of Stockholm and Lund, through smaller regional centres of higher education through to the National Rail School. This makes it possible to influence how rail education is developed and to gain insight into where to find the best talent
The aim of these collaborations is to create a platform that develops and shares a best-of-class academic approach and practical innovations to push boundaries and develop real solutions that will work worldwide.
The scale of the challenges facing the industry cannot be underestimated. In responding to these challenges, the industry must look beyond the traditional boundaries of engineering.
Communication is fundamental. The industry must ensure it is sitting next to the politicians, the economists and the scientists, informing robust decision making and helping to put everything in context.
Explaining and solving the technical challenges will help deliver transformational railways that people will want to use. It will also address issues such as how to reduce the carbon footprint of the railway or decreasing the land-take needed for new and existing lines. Both could drastically improve the business case for developing a modern railway.
Collaboration is vital. The cities and routes served by modern railways are complex, so a broad spread of expertise is needed to deliver smart design. The key is to have common goals and create central coordination methods.
Improving connectivity is vital to the future-proofing of society and managing urbanisation. The industry has it within its power to deliver this transformation.
This feature is based on a speech given by Atkins’ chief executive officer Professor Dr Uwe Krueger at the 2014 Danish Rail Conference (14 May 2014).