In 2018, Graeme Steverson, Technical Director at WSP authored a paper titled ‘Which speed rail? The case for faster rail’ for the 2018 AusRAIL Conference. Almost three years into that future, a lot has changed, and the conversation has progressed, yet the challenges and benefits remain the same.
In that time, WSP has been playing a key role in Faster Rail development in Australia, most notably as part of the NSW Fast Rail program. In that time, we have come to understand some of the unique characteristics and complexities in planning and delivering Faster Rail networks.
One of the biggest changes to our lives since 2018 has been the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Mark Xerri, Associate Rail Engineer and Project Manager and Technical Lead for the Sydney to Newcastle, Sydney to Central West and Sydney to Bomaderry Fast Rail Feasibility Studies undertaken by WSP.
“Unforeseen when Graeme’s paper was written, we have all been impacted in one way or another through travel restrictions, self-isolation, working from home or job insecurity, and sometimes ill-health. There is no doubt that this pandemic has changed the way we perceive, plan, and use our transport networks.
“In his paper, Graeme noted that changing trends in demographics could pose a challenge to establishing faster rail connections. With people migrating away from Sydney to Regional NSW and mostly towards the coast, the demand for rail services to the regions could increase, putting greater pressure on capacity during the commuter peaks.”
In a post-COVID world, demand for fast and efficient regional services are likely to increase. For those who can, working from home is the new normal, and the need to live close to where you work is now at its lowest ebb. Housing affordability in Australia’s capital cities remains a pressing issues and people have their sights on a tree or sea change, now that the gravitational pull of our biggest cities has been weakened. However, maintaining a connection between regional cities and their metropolitan neighbours will still be important, even if that trip is infrequent, which is an ideal space for Faster Rail.
Since 2018, we have been able to delve into deep detail in helping to develop and plan Faster Rail networks. The case for Faster Rail improvements is that it is an effective, no-regrets way to achieve faster rail travel times while being able to progressively upgrade existing networks and stage improvements.
"This holds true today, but we are also keenly aware now that Faster Rail is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, with many different potential interventions and responses available,” adds Mark. “Although there are the constant comparisons with other high speed rail and faster rail systems internationally, we have found that Faster Rail in Australia needs much more of a local perspective and locally developed solutions, due to distant population centres and challenging topography. The needs of communities and businesses and industry on each corridor we investigated were drastically different, necessitating a tailored solution that responds to the identified problems and helps realise the vision for those regional areas.”
“The very nature of Faster Rail is to be integrated within existing transport networks. I believe that we have come to really appreciate the importance and challenge of implementation and integration. There are challenges in terms of implementation and constructability, especially around topographical and environmental constraints, but also in weaving through complexity of our existing metropolitan rail networks. This is where we need to consider how we integrate rail systems and service plans. In many cases, we are proposing new technologies and higher speed services on existing rail networks still running local passenger services and freight, using conventional systems. While the implementation of civils and infrastructure is generally understood, though still challenging, the implementation of systems and services into existing operations without significant disruption requires careful planning and consideration.”
There is a long history of high speed rail investigation, plans and lost opportunity in Australia. “We know more now than we did a few years ago, and we have been able to refine our approach,” adds Mark. “Our current faster rail studies are more targeted in their focus while still being holistic, dedicated to understanding the needs of the communities we serve, defining a vision, and developing innovative, deliverable solutions across the whole customer journey to meet that need. I’m excited that we have been a part of that vision, and are making the most of this opportunity we have today.”
To find out what the future for fast rail in Australia is, contact our experts Mark Xerri or Graeme Steverson.
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