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High Speed | Arup: Maximising high speed rail success

High speed rail is a global technology, but it isn’t a case of one size fits all.

The design of the system needs to be customised to fit the particular needs of the country, the distance between cities, the layout of the cities, and above all, the needs of the users.

The solution is an international one and a local one, requiring creativity and innovation to deliver a safe, value for money solution.

Planning is the foundation for any major project and high speed rail is no exception. It is a complex system involving many disciplines and high levels of technology, which need to be planned and integrated to achieve the desired outcome. In order to do  this, absolute clarity is needed on what the project is intended to achieve, including type type of traveller and their particular needs, what will encourage them to use it, and the wider benefits the system is intended to achieve.

Beijing South Railway Station

Beijing South Railway Station

Beijing South Railway Station – Arup provided multidisciplinary design for this intermodal transport hub

Of course there are other modes which compete with high speed rail, but people’s expectations and lifestyles are changing. Generations who would be happy with sitting behind the wheel of a car to make a long journey, are now giving way to those who value their time differently, and wish to be more free while travelling and able to interact with social media. 

 So what are the challenges?

A key issue for high speed rail is the enormous legacy that we leave for future generations. As engineers we are continuously adding to the facilities and infrastructure in our world. Some of these items have short or medium term lives, and can be taken down and rebuilt to new tastes. Others, if we design them well, will be there for hundreds of years; just as our Victorian rail systems are today. 

Train speeds have doubled in the last 50 years and will increase in the future. There could be technology changes too which may need to be incorporated as time goes by. But the trace that we put down now is a fixture and will outlast many generations. It is therefore imperative that we incorporate good design that is not constrained by the limitations of technology today. 

high speed 1

High Speed 1

High Speed 1: Arup pioneered the route and formed London and Continental Railways to design, project manage and deliver it

Of course there are engineering challenges, such as high speed trains running through tunnels which create a pressure wave that hits the stagnant air at the end of the tunnel, causing a potential sudden change in pressure for passengers on the train.  At Arup we are overcoming engineering challenges like this, using state of the art techniques and creative solutions for the future. 

A major challenge is to win the hearts and minds of the public, who are rightly concerned at the effects a major project could have on them. At Arup we have been developing and using state of the art tools to help the public understand high speed rail projects and their impact. 

Our SoundLab allows stakeholders to hear the sound of a new railway such as High Speed 2 (HS2) long before it is built and the impact of noise reduction measures, so that they can decide for themselves. Our visualisation techniques have provided the HS2 select committee and other planning authorities with verified images to inform their decisions, and we use 3-D printing and immersive visualisation techniques to further demonstrate designs.

Capturing the maximum value

To capture the maximum value of the investment is clearly key, and, one size certainly doesn’t fit all. For example, it may be that the whole of the potential capacity is required to provide high density end to end travel. For other projects there are constraints, such as with High Speed 1 (HS1), where the Channel Tunnel provides paths for car and freight shuttles which limit the volume of long distance Eurostar services. 

The introduction of medium speed domestic commuter services on the Kent to London section provided a means of getting better value for money by using spare train paths, and a win-win solution by providing a stopping service to include those in the neighbourhoods through which it passed.

Tianjin Yujiapu Station China

Tianjin Yujiapu Station China

Tianjin Yujiapu Transport Hub – Arup designed the largest single layer roof in China plus the ground floor

But transport benefits are only part of the story. Putting  a high speed railway station in a city can have a transformative effect, such as in Lille, France, where the declining industrial town has been reborn as a thriving city. But there are other cities worldwide where the effect has not been so successful. High speed rail has to complement an existing strategy; it cannot simply generate activities in a vacuum. The high-speed line then becomes a catalyst for continuing growth.


Many procurement and delivery alternatives have been tried over recent years, particularly in Europe, from the totally “State” planned and delivered early TGVs in France to the private sector delivery of HS1 in UK, the combination of public and private contracts in Holland, and the current Tours-Bordeaux line concession in France. 



Soundlab, Arup’s innovative auralisation and visualisation solution for stakeholder consultation

HS1’s delivery marked the beginning of a turnaround in the delivery of major infrastructure projects in the UK. While the private funding side of the project encountered the inevitable fare-box risk issues; the innovative integrated project management, design and construction collaborative approach allowed the complex interfaces and stakeholders to be managed effectively, and the project delivered on time and on budget. The lessons learned included:

  • High speed rail projects have complex interfaces, and require a clear understanding and hands-on management of the whole project interfaces between civil infrastructure, control systems and rolling stock, from beginning to commissioning
  • An experienced and secure delivery agent is needed to gain the confidence of the funding institutions
  • Matching the ability of the industry to perform, and sizing contracts accordingly is essential
  • The private sector can take construction over-run risk in some circumstances
  • Target price contracts work, but are not appropriate for all types of work
  • Incentivising neighbouring contracts to achieve together can work well
  • Build off-site of route wide items, can bring economies of scale
  • Appropriate common cost items paid by client work well 
  • Early contractor involvement is a benefit.

Delivering high speed rail brings together a whole range of skills. To successfully deliver a quality, well designed, and operational railway that will stand the test of time requires exceptional planning and the best our industry has to offer.

  •  This article was written by Arup director and global rail leader Colin Stewart

Produced in association with

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