Rail is one of the strongest sectors in the worldwide civil engineering market.
Across the globe, there are projects to improve integrated public transport - urban light rail schemes, new underground railways and improved links to transport hubs such as airports and sea ports, as well as high-speed rail services between major urban centres.
The European Union is committed to developing a Europe-wide integrated transport network. Of the 14 priority projects, most are high-speed rail lines that will change the face of European travel. Many of these are under construction and intended to be ready by 2005.
In the UK, one of the most important (and the most high-profile) projects is the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the first section of which is well on the way to its planned opening date in 2003. Geotechnics is playing a key role in the project, not just in the conventional foundation sense, but in reducing the environmental impact of the high-speed line as it passes through the Kent countryside. Section two, due to start in summer 2001, will rely heavily on innovative geotechnical engineering to get the new line across the Essex marshes and beneath London's East End to a new terminus at St Pancras.
But the story does not end there. Over the next 10 years huge investment is planned for the UK rail industry, which has undergone a radical change over the past 12 months. The shadow Strategic Rail Authority, set up by the Government in June 1999, is an umbrella organisation intended to provide a strategy for the country's railways, encourage investment and manage the passenger rail franchises. The 'shadow'of its title will be dropped when legislation for its establishment is passed as part of the Transport Bill late this year or early next.
The sSRA should open up the rail market for new players, with the removal of what is perceived as network manager Railtrack's stranglehold on infrastructure development.
Franchises are under review, with the first, the East Coast Main Line, expected to be awarded this summer. The main thrust of the sSRA plan is to award franchises on the basis that operating companies should invest in infrastructure as well as the services themselves.
In July, the Government is due to announce its 10-year plan for transport, with an expected £100bn of public and private investment over that period. The plan will cover roads and rail, including surface access to ports and airports.
Following the announcement, sSRA will publish its strategic plan for Britain's railways in late summer/early autumn 2000. This will set out how it expects to tackle the job of increasing the role of the railways in addressing transport problems, promoting expanded services and improving their quality.
The authority is already involved in a number of projects that aim to increase train speeds by upgrading lines and reducing bottlenecks.
With further schemes in the pipeline, the next decade could see a work bonanza for the civil engineering industry and, of course, the geotechnical sector.
The first stage of the £5. 8bn West Coast Main Line upgrade is under way at Euston Station in north London. The upgrade is due to be complete by 2005, when trains should be running up to 225km/h between London, North Wales and Glasgow.
Railtrack has already ploughed £2bn into the upgrading of the East Coast Main Line between London and Edinburgh. Bids from two shortlisted bidders for the 20-year operating franchise - current operator Great North Eastern Railways and Virgin Rail Group - include high-speed upgrading plans. The sSRA is expected to announce a decision in July.
Work on Thameslink 2000, due to finish in 2006, is also under way, involving improvements and extensions to the important commuter route between Brighton on the south coast to Bedford, a similar distance north of London. Part of this work will enmesh with the second phase of CTRL, involving an enormous amount of work around King's Cross, which will become a major transport hub.
Railtrack outlined a £26. 5bn, 12 year investment programme in its annual Network Management Statement in March.
Although investment plans cannot be finalised until the Rail Regulator announces how much the network manager can charge train operators for using its infrastructure between 2001 and 2006, in the short and medium term at least, the future looks rosy.