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Keeping on the right tracks

Visualisation software has allowed Holland's major new freight line to minimise its environmental impact along the route.

Visualisation has been playing an important part in the design of Holland's major new freight line, especially because of its proximity to villages and roads.

The new freight route is part of a major rail investment that includes high-speed passenger lines. Like the passenger lines, freight's Betuwe Line is being designed to minimise environmental impact, in particular by tying its alignment closely to roads, explains project manager Gert de Haan of consultant Grontmij.

Client for the work is the Betuweroute Management Group, an arm of Netherlands rail subsidiary NS Railinfrabeheer. The 160km line will run from Rotterdam to the German border near Zevenaar, becoming a part of the European railway network.

Work includes a mix of upgrades to existing lines, new track, sections where other rail or roads are to run in the same zone, and replacement of level crossings with flyovers. Two tunnelling contracts have started on site. Other contracts are out to tender and expected to start this summer. Grontmij and De Weger performed the preliminary design, and have had a continuing involvement. Holland Railconsult and Arcadis have carried out detailed design.

There are four key reasons for using visualisation techniques for a major road or railway, says de Haan - examination of the design, safety analysis, environmental impact assessment and public inquiry.

Preliminary design, which started in 1989, was carried out using a Dutch package. Moss software - now called MX-Rail from Infrasoft - was adopted as design progressed.

'Our first task was to optimise the location of the line,' explains de Haan. The Betuwe line runs close to existing highways, and urban areas are growing on either side.

The use of the MX system allowed appropriate solutions to be developed, which included curving the line around villages, running right alongside the highway or sometimes going through the centre of small towns. In places, the highway has had to be redesigned.

Another constraint has come from the discovery of archaeological remains along the route, from habitations there some 2,000-3,000 years ago. However this has not altered the route - the remains will be put on display in a museum.

About a dozen versions of the design for the line have been developed, says de Haan, with particular emphasis on minimising both the earthworks and the impact on villages en route.

This is the first project to come under new Netherlands public consultation procedures for major infrastructure schemes. Grontmij, De Weger and other firms were very involved in this, using the MX software to prepare views for use at public meetings for instance. It has also been used to help in decisions about the noise impact of the road and rail on offices alongside.

Landscape planning has been a major feature, and the engineering works such as viaducts are to a large extent determining the face of the route. These are often the points at which the passer-by will have most direct contact with the line.

The design principle, says Grontmij, is characterised by the words 'slender' and 'strong'. Rail viaducts, for example, include shell-shaped edges and round, slim columns.

The spatial design was made as a 3D digital terrain model, with visualisations and computer animations to evaluate the design. Grontmij developed some tools of its own for use with the MX software.

A virtual reality model allows a 'drive through' impression of the work. This helps see the effects of design decisions at junctions for instance, says de Haan, giving better design solutions to the client.

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