Meeting the challenge of urban connectivity through High Speed Rail

The UK population is projected to grow by an additional 10 million in the next 25 years, meaning that the 21st century trend towards rapidly increasing levels of urbanisation is here to stay. However, the successful development of our urban areas and wider regions depends on an efficient transportation infrastructure, with rail an increasingly important element.

Recent projections suggest global rail travel will double by 2050, and as a result rail track kilometres will need to increase by roughly 30% above 2010 levels. This means that many countries – not least of which the UK – are placing rail infrastructure at the centre of their transportation strategies.   

As an effective and environmentally responsible means of moving large numbers of people and heavy loads, a well-operating network can be a major differentiator amongst cities vying to attract employers, employees and new residents. High quality, resilient transport networks mean more jobs, greater investment and a more productive workforce. It also brings more options for work and living within easy reach of even more people, all of which contributes to their quality of life.

This has been recognised at a global level. We see this in our work supporting the delivery of High Speed Rail in California where, by 2029, a new $68 billion system will run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin in 2 hours and 40 minutes at speeds up to 220 miles per hour. This will connect the mega-regions of the state, contribute to economic development, create jobs and preserve agricultural and protected lands. 

High speed rail is clearly an important part of the picture when it comes to connecting cities and linking urban hubs. In the UK, there are a number of train operators already running high speed services, but the challenge now is to ensure that the nation is delivering the track capacity to support faster trains running at speeds of up to 250kph. This will help to increase passenger capacity and deliver a faster, more frequent and higher quality service nationwide. 

Furthermore, investment in national infrastructure will support the UK in reaching out to global trading markets. In turn, this will help drive the investment that these and future critical programmes will require, fostering longer-term growth, prosperity and opportunities for all, as well as re-setting the balance between government and private investment, and healing regional divides.

There is a lot that we can learn from the implementation of high speed travel worldwide. Leading the way was the impact of our work on the high speed network in Continental Europe. The expansion of both the French and the German high speed network highlighted the benefits that can be derived from better connections and services, in turn generating demand for further expansion and facilitating a sound business case for further investment. 

We experienced this with successful public-private partnership projects like the South Europe Atlantique line, extending an additional 300 km to link Paris to Bordeaux. Similarly for the east line from Paris to Strasbourg, reaching out to Germany, and from Paris to Dijon. 

Another interesting experience is of course the HSL South line, connecting Amsterdam, Antwerp, Brussels and Paris. Guaranteeing the smooth crossing of borders brings significant impact in terms of prosperity and access to markets, as well as enabling people to travel much more easily for work and pleasure. This is certainly something we’ve seen in the UK with High Speed 1, connecting London and Paris. 

However, connecting cities and linking urban hubs via rail is only part of the solution. It is equally important to guarantee the highest quality and safety standards, while reducing environmental impacts by providing a sustainable alternative to travelling by air or car.

Drawing on such comparisons, Chris Pike, our Development Director for Infrastructure in the UK, said: 

“In the UK, spreading growth regionally through high speed travel linking the entire network is a similarly ambitious challenge. HS2 will already connect to Birmingham International Airport and Manchester Airport so it would logically follow that the option of connecting HS2 to Heathrow via Old Oak Common would complete a strong network of airports and high speed rail links. Connecting Heathrow to the North and Midlands will underpin the Northern Powerhouse agenda and has the potential to act as a catalyst for growth across the entire country.”  

Experience shows how achievable this ambition can be. Our role providing multi-disciplinary construction management helped the 1,000 km long-Wuhan to Guangzhou Railway PDL (Passenger Dedicated Line) to successfully open just 4.5 years after construction started. Being part of the Chinese long distance PDL network has given the region a major boost both in terms of mobility and local economic impact.

However, the need for continuous improvement should not be underestimated. This is what we see in our current work on further improving HS1. Ongoing technical improvements and innovations can help to provide more attractive future services, for example, enabling the TGV trainset on the French east line to recently beat its world record with a speed of 574.8 kph. This could not have been achieved without a perfect quality track and bedding formation that was perfectly aligned with all systems

For the UK, learning from key growth economies by coalescing research and development will open up and extend our infrastructure opportunities. We need to raise our ambitions to support the creation of High Speed rail and use it as a wealth creator to attract significant inward investment in the future. High Speed Rail is one of the most important enablers driving the future growth, development and prosperity of the UK nation. 

Bas Bollinger

Global Leader Rail & Urban Transport +31 6 27 06 04 14 Ask me a question