The case for rail integration

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 17

Jeremy Long, CEO of European Business at MTR Corporation, reflects on how stronger integration of train and track could benefit major rail infrastructure projects in the UK.

MTR Corporation’s new South Island Line (SIL) connects Hong Kong’s Southern District with the city’s central business district via four new stations, and its first four-line mega interchange at Admiralty station. Launched at the end of December last year, the new line can serve up to 170,000 passengers per day for 18 hours. 

An unprecedented project, both in terms of challenges and complexity, SIL posed a diverse engineering challenge, featuring two underground cavern stations, two above-ground stations, one cut-and-cover station, two tunnel sections, 2km of viaducts and a bridge across the city’s Aberdeen Channel. 

To bring its ambitious vision to life, MTR incorporated technologies and systems never previously implemented in Hong Kong, in close collaboration with government and other stakeholders. Despite these challenges, and important safety considerations, MTR was able to avoid any disruption to the existing railway operations, which ran uninterrupted throughout the entirety of the construction period. 

One key factor which made this possible was the integrated nature of the Hong Kong Metro, with MTR both operating trains and managing infrastructure under a single company. The project serves as a convincing case study for how other markets, such as the UK, could stand to benefit from a more ‘joined-up’ railway. 

This piece focuses on one of the most challenging sections of the SIL project – extension works at Admiralty station – and explains how stronger integration of train and track could benefit major rail infrastructure projects in the UK. 

Admiralty station – a feat of civil engineering

As part of the SIL project, the existing Admiralty station in Hong Kong’s central business district was extended to accommodate the new line as well as the future Shatin to Central Link. This meant expanding the previously three-level underground station to six levels, with three new levels added directly beneath the existing station. 

The complex nature of the necessary excavation and underpinning works were further complicated by the need to ensure the existing passenger services at Admiralty ran uninterrupted throughout the duration of the construction. Not only was it imperative to maintain the safety of the railway structure, but it was equally important to ensure construction did not undermine the reliability or comfort of train services. Given that Hong Kong’s passengers are used to 99.9% of trains running on time, maintaining such high levels of service during major works was no simple task. 

On the construction side, MTR worked closely with designers and contractors to establish a load transfer structure using temporary steel beams and columns to support the operating railway tunnels for excavation work to progress directly underneath. 

Swiss-designed hydraulic jacking software was used to control the loads and maintain the tunnel in the design position throughout the 19 stages of load transfer. Three separate automatic monitoring systems, including hydraulic levelling utilising vibrating wire technology never previously used in Hong Kong, were employed to monitor the movements to an accuracy of +- 0.01 mm. 

The underground nature of the work also required blasting work. This presented a significant challenge not only given the proximity to the existing railways but also to the wider urban setting of Hong Kong. 

To minimise impact, MTR worked in close collaboration with the government to reach a tailored schedule around blasting. 

According to local regulation, explosives for blasting operations are to be delivered by government authorities between noon and 2pm and then immediately installed and detonated. These timings, however, were not feasible at Admiralty as the vibrations from the blasting would impact ongoing railway operations. MTR, therefore, negotiated with the government a special, overtime delivery of explosives in the evening for blasting to be carried out during non-traffic hours. 

Admiralty (Dec-2014) edit

The opportunity for the UK

The extension of Admiralty and construction of the SIL more broadly was a complicated feat of civil engineering that highlights the benefits that can be achieved by a joined-up railway, and the opportunity for a changed, more integrated, railway operation here in the UK. 

The integrated nature of train and track on the Hong Kong Metro was a vital factor in ensuring that the project was completed as seamlessly as possible, with minimal disruption to passenger services. 

With MTR holding responsibility for both train services and rail infrastructure in Hong Kong, the various teams responsible for Admiralty and existing rail services could collaborate more closely. This meant that the project was carried out more holistically, with passengers in mind from the planning stage all the way through to completion. 

Taking a holistic approach to rail and related infrastructure developments can deliver better results for all parties – investors, government, passengers and communities – be it through strengthening integration on the railway or delivering major station development as a catalyst for growth.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email 


Lutz   24/03/2017 at 06:31

There is nothing in this article that demonstrates the assertion that an integrate operator/owner organisation has an advantage over against a split between organisations with domain expertise. How exactly does an integrated owner/operator achieve an advantage over domain-specific organisation in the modern world. When you look at the structures and processes, there is virtually no difference in their execution.

Rodger Bradley   31/03/2017 at 14:47

So, what is really being said here is that either we nationalise the UK rail operation business, or we remove elements like the leasing companies, and allow the train operators to own and run the track and signalling, etc., etc. I'm sure this has been done before, and up to 1923, this was how it worked - might be worth looking at some history books. Still, giving it a fancy name like ... "integration of train and track" does sound like a 21st century business jargon.

Iain Flynn   12/04/2017 at 08:25

Lutz, the evidence seems to show the need for a single 'guiding mind', a system authority with the political mandate, technical understanding (across all assets), operational expertise and economic clout to make the right long-term decisions - and indeed short-term ones - at the system level. This is the case with MTR, and closer to home LU and other TfL operations, even where other organisations operate the trains under concession or indeed own the infrastructure as with DLR or London Overground. UK experience over much of the network, where domain-specific and quite separate organisations run trains and infrastructure with no real 'guiding mind', has been indifferent with endemic congestion and a suboptimal service in places. We can have the 'split' but, to optimise the railway, there needs to be someone in overall charge.

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