Let’s re-evaluate and redesign our transportation systems to make the world a better place
The paradigms – optimisation and sustainability
Sustainability cannot be achieved without addressing all three pillars of sustainable development which are environment, economy, and society – Brundtland Report (1987).
Sustainability isn’t enough here’s why we need to regenerate – Johan Rockström’s (COP26 November 2021).
For many decades, projects for railways, like many infrastructure proposals, followed the paradigm where solutions were based on the optimisation of investments, driven fundamentally by finding the balance between the cost and performance of the operation. The goal of achieving the best railway infrastructure was based on a few compliant factors, such as minimising travel time and maintenance, whilst maximising infrastructure availability. The investment cost, largely determined by the morphology of the land, was apportioned early on between the immediate Capex and deferred Opex costs. This later evolved to include considerations of life cycle, where the desired balance is estimated for the initial phase, and then subsequent phases, of project design. Just recently, more attention has also been focussed on the need to reduce environmental impacts.
Although the greenhouse effect associated with the release of CO2 has been studied since 1960 (David Keeling), the risk of it becoming a serious global problem has only recently been widely recognised, perhaps only since 2015. This worldwide urge to break the pace of global warming, mainly by reducing CO2 emissions, has brought about significant changes in the way we consider our environment, whether in food and energy production, in industry and manufacturing, construction, transport, and mobility.
The reduction of CO2 emissions is just part of the scope that determines the sustainability of investments. However, the urgency demanded by the global perception of the seriousness of that problem should not result in us ignoring others, such as those of an environmental, social, and economic nature.
Transport and transport infrastructure are seen as areas where the need to reduce CO2 emissions is more evident. In this context, investments in rail transport and in new mobility technologies, due to their easier migration to new propulsion systems from renewable energies, are arguably the most effective way to bring about the desired emission reduction.
In-line with this objective is a need to introduce changes in projects (including redesign), with implications that may, in part, overlap with the previous paradigm of optimising investments, specifically where the implementation of solutions achieves a reduction of CO2 emissions. The optimisation paradigm is thus becoming replaced by the sustainability paradigm.
Finally, other issues related to the safety and good performance of infrastructure, in the face of extreme phenomena and other changes to evolving climatic characteristics of buildings, do not constitute an area of special focus, as they have always been part of proper engineering. But it is still true that more needs to be done in this respect, to make all elements of our new developments more sustainable for future generations.
In Europe, funds are being allocated to encompass some of what is needed to bring about significant beneficial changes to the way that major infrastructure can be provided to increase mobility. Other parts of the world have similar goals and transportation is seen to be one of the necessary keys to stimulating economic growth. The way that projects are derived and delivered, between like-minded parties, with political support, is crucial. We must harness new innovations and technologies, and work in meaningful alliances, to ensure that all involved in such projects work together within a framework driven fundamentally by the common good.
Redesign and better Project Management
We know that improved sustainability of railway investments will always result from a better understanding and combination of environmental, economic, and social aspects. There is, therefore, a need to redefine some concepts, solutions and parameters that support and frame such projects, ensuring they lead to more robust sustainability, in social, economic and environmental regeneration terms.
If, on the one hand, engineering welcomes the necessary changes to these new circumstances for projects, then positive results will occur. On the other hand, urgency may reduce the possibility of experimentation and the certainty of outcome in the performance of new solutions and new concepts.
It is natural that some of the new measures and solutions are not yet available, nor supported in codes or regulations produced for another design paradigm. Now is the time for consistent and innovative ideas in design and engineering that promote sustainability.
As always, railway investments are made by combining vehicles, their operation and management, with the necessary infrastructure. Changes to rolling stock, or their operation, may also necessitate changes to infrastructure.
We need to know what changes will be made in the future for trains and carriages to improve the sustainability of the investment. Will they consume less or different types of energy? How will the infrastructure be designed for the evolutionary transition of trains? Can journey times increase to meet trip sustainability? Can the reduction in speed in certain places, such as on some ramps, also contribute? Should the reduction in the cost of tunnels, by reducing the permitted speeds, be part of the equation?
For infrastructure, what can be questioned? Is the current constitution of the track platform sacrosanct, or can it be reconsidered and redesigned? For landfills, is it possible to use soils that, although not complying with the requirements of the codes, will have less environmental impact? Engineers and designers must search for new sustainable solutions but the codes and other requirements will need to flex to allow changes to be made to hitherto traditional methods. Best international practices involving Capex and Opex considerations will need to be shared to optimise life cycle considerations. Our need is to find new, cheaper, faster and better solutions with outcomes that are both environmentally and socially positive. Regeneration of older infrastructure can also play a significant part in this process.
The positive interplay between the professional team, including the client, will always be critical to the success of any project. This must be managed from its inception, through the design feasibility and solution phases, and not just in subsequent phases of procurement and delivery. The Project Manager will need to embrace increased responsibility and be at the center of strategic decisions, bringing together the different parts of the project, directing how it should evolve. Professional competence is fundamental, with specific expert involvement where needed. Comprehensive analysis of possibilities and constraints will determine optimum solutions. The opportunities for all involved in such leading-edge projects are endless, and those who recognise this will enjoy rich rewards.
Written by Antonio Campos e Matos of GEG Engineering Structures for Life