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Bechtel’s Impact Report

The multiplier effect of rail

  • By
    portrait of Graeme Overall
    Graeme Overall, Career Railway Manager
  • 03 November 2021
     6 Min Read

Population growth and urbanization continues around the world at more than 1% per annum. More than half of us now live in cities, and communities face the challenge of developing more sustainable transport and land-use if they are to thrive. Railways are central to the solution.


The building of railways offers legacy opportunities far beyond construction jobs, supply chain support, and predictable journeys over any distance. They offer communities the chance to become wealthier, cleaner, safer, more equal, and more successful. For every £1 spent on the rail network, the wider economy received economic benefits of £2.20, the Railway Industry Association said in a November 2020 report. The report attributed 2.5% of greenhouse gas emissions from transport and only 0.6% of total U.K. emissions to rail, underlining the role of rail in leading a green recovery and meeting net zero targets. Rail also delivers high capacity in narrow corridors and helps sustain the high-density urban land-use needed to protect sustainable agriculture and wilderness from suburban sprawl.

The essentials of railway technology are inexpensive and simple, and as the backbone of sustainable transport systems, railways offer inclusive, effective mobility within and between urban communities. Additionally, electrified railways offer a mature remotely powered technology, able to be directly fed by renewable energy sources and unencumbered by the need for on-board energy storage.

With this multiplier effect in mind, it’s easy to see why the interest in rail is growing as nations look to invest in infrastructure. The U.S. is exploring high-speed rail between cities, the U.K. is restoring old routes, India and Australia are expanding existing networks, and in many parts of Asia and the Middle East, the focus is on building rail for the first time.

A history of transformation

Since railways were first developed in the 1830s, their impacts have been transformational. In their first century, they created new industries, towns, cities, and countries. Initially, with little competition, rail networks proliferated, serving multiple traffic types and settlements, from the large cities that grew with them to much smaller towns.

During the second half of the twentieth century, road and air competition led railways to specialize in dense passenger and freight flows. In developed countries, networks were trimmed, often quite radically, while in developing countries, railway network growth generally stopped. The future appeared to lie with road transport. Although the issue of congestion in cities quickly became apparent, the implications for existing patterns of settlement and land-use, and for society and the environment more generally, were not immediately understood.

For many communities, the results have not been positive. In the developed world, smaller towns that lost their rail connections have found themselves cut off from education, employment, and other opportunities. While the young, the elderly, and the poor were most directly affected, the relative economic decline impacted everyone.

In the developing world’s rapidly growing cities, the picture has been a different one. Streets are too often chaotic and polluted, filled with the slow-moving vehicle exports of developed countries, and organized public transport is lacking, leaving simple movement into and around the city a daily struggle for hundreds of millions.

Restoring connections

In many countries, pressure to restore railway connections has been slowly gathering pace. In the U.K., where almost half of a very dense railway network was lost in the 20th century, the current government is committed to reopening many lost lines, building upon the success of a small number of earlier schemes in the East Midlands, South Wales, and the Scottish borders, and affirming the commitment to “level up” communities by reopening railways.

In Germany, where many railway closures in the east occurred only after reunification, a similar movement is underway, and almost 1,000 kilometers of railways have been reopened to passengers in the past 25 years.

In North America, where many urban and interurban passenger rail systems were lost in the mid-20th century and where low population density has facilitated the most marked drift to car-based patterns of land use, many urban communities have nevertheless adopted metro and light rail system development as a tool of renewal. Bechtel has helped to develop many of these systems, including current projects in Edmonton, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Additionally, in Texas, we are supporting a talisman of intercity rail revival: the Dallas-Houston high-speed line project.

In Asia, where there has never been a period of substantial railway network retrenchment, the current picture is one of expansion of historic rail systems to match population growth and urbanization. Most dramatic of all has been the development of railway systems in China, where 40 cities have gained metro networks since 2000. Nearly 700 kilometers of new metro lines opened in China in December 2020 alone, and the mainline railway network grew by 21% between 2016 and 2020. Progress in India has been less spectacular, but nevertheless twelve cities now have metros, where just 40 years ago there were none.

Sustainable transport remains essential

Smart and resilient cities need sustainable infrastructure that can also curb carbon emissions. Smart cities may be focused a little less on city center employment, but not all human life can be conducted through a computer screen. Cities must still evolve to incorporate neighborhood facilities within walking distance, higher density housing, and space-efficient passenger and freight transport, as well as universally available digital communications. As such, rail’s role will continue to increase, whether through the reopening of lines, new urban systems, new high-speed lines, or even a revival of rail distribution of consumer goods to urban centers.

An urbanized world population needs more compact cities and transport systems that facilitate both intraurban and interurban mobility, and policymakers will need to focus on measures that secure these objectives. In parts of the developing world, rapid action is needed to tackle unsustainable urban development unmatched by the provision of transport systems and other infrastructure.

The power of rail

Innovation may allow other modes to emulate some of rail’s qualities. There is potential for automated highway networks to contribute much more efficiently to urban transport, adopting many rail characteristics to provide higher capacity and greater accessibility using less space.

However, achieving dramatic improvement will likely require a reappraisal of vehicle sizes and an abandonment of the concepts of private vehicle ownership and unpriced access to the highway. This will be hard enough in developed societies showing, until the pandemic at least, signs of boredom with the motoring ideal; it will be harder still in societies where car ownership is still a powerful aspiration.

In the meantime, rail, with its understood and accepted characteristics of collectivized use, controlled and priced access, and sustainable technology, will play a central role in lifting communities and keeping them there.

Learn more about Bechtel’s rail solutions.

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