High Speed Rail and BIM


March 19, 2015 │ Lachmi Khemlani │

Living in California, it was very interesting to hear that the planned High Speed Rail (HSR) initiative, which has been under consideration since the 1980s, finally got the go-ahead. The ground-breaking for this project was held in Fresno on 6 January, 2015. Of course, projects like these are first and foremost, political decisions, and they have to be approved by voters. Even when the need for such a project is identified and found to be compelling, there are so many additional aspects that have to be considered, including the budget, transportation alternatives, impact on congestion, the extent of disruption to existing infrastructure, and so on. However, once all these come though and a project like this gets the go-ahead, it is a huge deal from an infrastructure perspective. While the exact mechanics of how the trains will operate and the speeds they will achieve belong to the domain of automotive engineering, the AEC industry gets the task of laying out all the train tracks and building all the train stations that will be needed.

With the increasing implementation of BIM and model-based design, not just for buildings but also for infrastructure (see the recent AECbytes article, “Extending BIM to Infrastructure”), we would expect that the projected cost of any new HSR projects would be significantly lower than those projects already implemented in the pre-BIM era, taking into account the many benefits that BIM brings to the design and construction process. This was further reinforced by the recent presentation on London’s planned new High Speed Two rail network (also called HS2) at the Bentley Year in Infrastructure conference last October, where BIM was being seen as the “lifeblood” of the project, not just for designing and constructing HS2 virtually but also for operating it over the course of its 150+ year lifecycle. Given the 20 to 30 year gestation and construction period of HSR projects, it may be too early to determine what the actual impact of BIM implementation on them will be; however, there is some early work being done with BIM on parts of these projects that should be able to provide us with a better idea of its potential.

Before getting into the BIM aspect, let’s take a quick look at the current status of HSR projects around the globe.   

High Speed Rail Projects around the World

High Speed Rail is defined as a type of rail transport that operates significantly faster than traditional rail traffic, typically at a speed over 200 km/h (125 mph). Japan was the first country that developed HSR—it went into operation in 1964 and was widely known as the “bullet train.” Since then, many countries have developed HSR to connect major cities, including Austria, Belgium, Britain, China, France (Figure 1), Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. It continues to be expanded in many of these countries while also being planned in several more. While most of the planned HSR projects are still at the feasibility study stage, a few are under construction such as a 66 km section in Algeria on which construction began in 2011, and a 200 km section in Morocco on which construction began in 2011. HSR is also part of a 2200 km rail network being planned by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia). In particular, Qatar, which will be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup (see the article on FIFA World Cup Stadiums in the Q2 2014 issue of AECbytes Magazine) has announced planned HSR links to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in time for that event.

The case for HSR is most compelling in high-population, high-density areas, which is true of almost all the countries that have implemented it, despite the high costs. Taking a closer look at one example, Taiwan has a HSR line that runs along the west coast of the country, from the national capital Taipei to the southern city of Kaohsiung, reaching almost 90% of the population (Figure 2) Taiwan's rapid economic growth during the second half of the twentieth century saturated its highways, conventional rail, and air traffic systems, leading to the idea of a new high-speed rail line in the 1970s. Informal planning on it began in 1980, a feasibility study was completed in 1990, the project formally commenced in 1997, and the line started operation in 2007. Construction of the system took more than 2,000 professional engineers and over six years to complete. As shown in the map, eight stations on the line are operational; four more are planned and expected to be completed within the next two years. (One of these planned new stations, Chunghwa, was designed using BIM, as we will see later.)

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