Rail is essential for a modern, multi-modal and interconnected transport network. As cities expand, suburbs sprawl, and environments are impacted by more people, more cars and more roads, rail is taking the stage as a safe, sustainable and attractive means of mass transit and freight.
Here to discuss key issues, trends and opportunities to make everyday better in rail are two leaders: Claire Booth Jones, Technical Director - Transport Infrastructure, and Katharina Gerstmann, Principal - Transport Infrastructure NSW.
Q1 – You each have more than 20 years’ global rail experience - what is it that makes you so passionate about the industry?
Claire Booth Jones: I love the complexity and challenge of rail projects, and all the different technical and social drivers that come into play; the need to be operationally efficient, safe, accessible, sustainable and of course, enjoyable for customers. Stations are real community hubs and centres in so many cities around the world.
While working in Hong Kong on some of the Lantau and airport railway stations, and with City Rail Link NZ for many years, I developed a passion for underground rail. There is all the complexity of surface rail, with the additional challenges that come with large numbers of people moving below ground.
Katharina Gerstmann: What I love is the dynamism and size of the industry. Rail employs over 100,000 people in more than 170 different companies across Australia and New Zealand. It is an industry that contributes billions of dollars to the Australasian economy, and that keeps things moving and connected.
Q2 - How does the New Zealand and Australian rail environment compare to that of Europe and Asia?
Claire: Obvious differences are in the number of people using the systems and the sophistication of existing infrastructure. New Zealand rail has suffered from under-investment for a long time, and people are not in the habit of turning to rail to travel.
Although Auckland Transport is celebrating 100 million public transport trips in the last year, it’s still common for Aucklanders to jump in the car without a second thought. Imagine that translated to Hong Kong or London, and what it would do to the city!
Katharina: Alongside differences in scale, complexity, and population density, Europe also tends to have greater acceptance and civic pride in public transport systems.
Take the new Gotthard-Base-Tunnel; a 57km rail tunnel connecting Switzerland and Italy with a highspeed line. Not only is it the longest railway and deepest traffic tunnel in the world, but the railway line can be used by freight traffic at night and highspeed trains at 250kph during the day.
A memorable moment working on the project was when Swiss people voted for a tax increase in 2007 to help fund it. Their attitude and support towards rail transport is second-to-none in the world, something others can learn from.
Pictured: Claire Booth Jones, Beca Technical Director – Transport Infrastructure
Q3 – What is multi-modal transport all about, and why is effective integration so important?
Claire: From origin to destination, not all journeys can be made using one mode of transport. Passengers only have limited patience with the disruption of changing modes – so it has to be made easy, frequent and convenient.
Rail forms the transport spine that carries large volumes of people and needs arterial connections via bicycles, buses, and scooters to reach beyond the bounds of walking distance from a station. Stations themselves ideally need to be spread out so they have a reasonable catchment area, and so trains are not stopping too often.
If you don’t live within walking, cycling (or scooting) distance of a station, you need to connect by another transport means, such as ride sharing, so let’s plan for that to be seamless.
Katharina: Rail transport, though vital, is only one contributor to the effective running of businesses, industries and communities.
To make rail transport a success, transport planners need to consider a range of factors for both current and future demand: interaction of the rail transport network and land use; performance of the various transport systems; and demand management and behavioural change, to name a few.
Integrated transport planning is required to bring this all together, and achieve the best solutions for people, communities, cities and funders.
Examples of this can be seen in work Beca is involved in, in New South Wales, with the Transport Access Program. This is an initiative to provide a better experience for public transport customers by delivering accessible, modern, secure and integrated infrastructure.
We make sure stations are accessible to people with a disability, limited mobility and parents with prams. We provide modern interchanges that support a better connected network, and allow seamless transfers between all modes for all customers.
Q4 – What’s needed to take the global rail industry into the next decade?
Katharina: Rail and other mass transit systems need a long-term vision and plan, with buy-in and support across community and political boundaries. Rail projects are lengthy and expensive to build upfront, although cheaper and more sustainable in the long run.
As an example of long-term thinking, the planning horizon for the 1,748km High Speed Rail Network between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne would likely extend to 2055 and not be fully operational until 2070.
To achieve public buy-in to this type of planning, we need to ensure a consistently great user experience for all customers, regardless of which transport mode they choose to use.
Claire: Yes, we definitely need vision and planning for the long-term. We also really need to consider our changing environments and the pressures and impacts of climate change. Think rises in sea level, flooding and severe weather; and how this will affect the flows and movement of people within and between countries and cities.
We need to build resilience into our networks and provide alternative options should we need them. We should not assume that existing infrastructure is going to function in future decades and that we can simply add to it.
Beyond our changing world, we also need to consider changes in lifestyles, and how, where and when people work. Will people still be getting up and travelling to city centre offices at the same time every morning? When we look at the pace of change over the last fifty years, it is entirely possible people will be living very different lives in future.
Q5 - How is technology and innovation having an impact?
Katharina: Compared with other transport modes, railway technology might seem to be progressing as slowly as an 80s-era suburban commuter service, rattling and screeching its way from one station to another.
Automotive technology, by contrast, seems to change constantly. In the past decade GPS, hybrids, parking sensors, keyless entry and other innovations have flourished. And in the aviation industry, we’ve seen rapid advances in in-flight entertainment and communication, fancy flat-bed seats and quieter, more efficient engines.
However, this comparison is not entirely fair, as there is no shortage of new ideas steadily making their way out onto the track - in Australia and around the world. Better technologies are delivering everything from improved traction, braking and route planning to trains designed to glide on air at 500kph. There are schemes to transfer electrical energy from braking trains into the local power grid, and even more radical plans for ‘moving platforms’ that dock with high-speed trains.
So really, rail and mass transit is a very exciting space, and an area likely to see even more dramatic advances in coming years.
Claire: Technology is having a huge impact on the global rail industry, however much of it is hidden behind the scenes or taken for granted.
Advances in wireless technology, together with personalised customer information systems, such as variable digital signage and text messaging, is being used to communicate real-time travel data and assist in managing emergency scenarios. Facial recognition technology can be employed by advanced CCTV systems to improve security, and be linked directly to rail communication or signalling systems.
Ticketless systems are being trialled by Transport for London on their Underground using bank cards and potentially smartphones. In Tokyo this has been around since 2001, with Suica and Pasmo cards used as to pay for everything from tickets to snacks and shopping.
Harvesting the data collected via ticketing information or smartphones also gives us greater insight into how customers use systems – ensuring safer, smoother and better-connected journeys.
Alternative ways of powering trains are also being explored, such as the use of battery technology and hydrogen.
Virtual reality and BIM are increasingly commonplace rail design tools, with fully 3D models created to view and navigate spaces we have created. These models can link to those that show how people move through at rush hour, to model peak flows and emergency scenarios.
Q6 - What are some key rail trends to keep an eye on?
Claire: As populations grow and shift we need to provide people with a safe, resilient and sustainable transport network that increases connectivity between urban and regional centres.
Alternative fuel sources for freight as well as passenger transportation will reduce carbon emissions, predictive maintenance technologies assist pre-empting failures building resilience, wireless technologies reduce the need for expensive and vulnerable cabling.
These are a few specific technical advances. But the development of an approved long-term plan - 30 year plus - for rail transport, providing a stable and predictable pipeline of work and allowing specialist skills to be developed and maintained in the New Zealand industry, is essential to market efficiency and economic growth.
Katharina: To look forward, it’s also important to look back. For the past century, transportation has fuelled the world’s economy by enabling the movement of people, goods, ideas and resources. Yet in recent decades, road and air have dominated many nations’ transportation investments to the disadvantage of the most sustainable solution – rail. Investing in rail stimulates economies while reducing carbon emissions and urban congestion.
Things are changing though, with greater awareness of climate change and sustainable best practice, and of new and innovative uses of technology. There is also a greater consciousness today of the links and inter-dependencies of transportation and economic growth, and the need for networks to be more inclusive and accessible.