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Bechtel’s Impact Report

Building efficient, lower-carbon urban transit systems

  • By
    portrait of John Williams
    John Williams, President, Infrastructure Northeast US & Canada
  • 10 February 2023

Canada’s rail infrastructure is undergoing a massive transformation. At the national level, a procurement process is set to launch for high frequency rail between Quebec City and Windsor, a city in southwestern Ontario across from Detroit. GO Transit, Ontario’s regional rail service, is electrifying its system and delivering 15-minute or better, all-day service on the core lines. And in Toronto, Ontario’s capital, a $28.5 billion subway transit expansion plan, the largest in Canadian history, is now underway. 

Rail is at the very core of Bechtel’s heritage: Our first job was in rail when Warren Bechtel worked as a grader on a railroad job in Oklahoma in the U.S. Over the last 125 years, we’ve completed over 300 major rail projects – some as a contractor and some as a Delivery Partner within owner organizations – all over world. Most recently Bechtel delivered BART’s expansion into the Silicon Valley in California, Sydney Metro West in Australia, and Crossrail’s Elizabeth Line in London, U.K., and we’re taking part in Toronto’s expansion plan as the Delivery Partner for its Ontario Line. 

Communities have positively benefited from these investments time and time again, but political will cannot be taken for granted. 

Speaking at the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s annual Transportation Symposium about why we should be optimistic for the future of regional commuter rail investment and how owner organizations can best organize to deliver mega urban rail projects efficient and effectively, I posed two questions:

  1. First, do major commuter rail investments still make sense in a post COVID-19 world?
  2. Second, what can customers do to give themselves the best chance to be successful?

Importance of major commuter rail investments

The answer to the first question is a resounding YES. 

Crossrail’s Elizabeth Line, which I was proud to work on for three years, is the latest and best example. This underground metro line – which had been a gleam in urban planners’ eyes since 1940s – was launched for passenger service in May of 2022 to huge and deserved 

To see it in action is to see an engineering, construction, and technological marvel. It consists of 100 km of railway, 42 km of tunnels, 10 new major stations, and significant upgrades to the legacy network.  

More importantly, it is doing what it was designed to do – transport people across the city – and has raised the bar on efficiency and reliability of commuter rail in London and across the world. It is impacting how residents, commuters, and visitors move around the city. Ridership forecast has exceeded all projections: numbers rebounded to pre-COVID-19 levels in December 2022, in large part because of the reliability and ease of use the service offered. 

That should bring confidence to politicians and policy makers around the world that high quality public infrastructure assets will stimulate new forms of demand, create new patterns of travel, and help reduce carbon emissions.

Positioning for success

To answer the second question requires reflection on many lessons learned from rail projects around the world. Each had'unique challenges and complexities, but common themes emerge. 

1. “Goldilocks” sponsorship 

There is a “Goldilocks” dimension to the depth and nature of political involvement. Not enough political leadership and the project stays firmly on the urban planners’ BIM board. Too many risks overwhelm the project leadership. We need to pull back on the rise in “governance theatre,” where large and expensive sponsor teams spend a ton of time marking the project leadership’s homework. The value add is often questionable – the theatre creates the illusion of audit comfort but doesn’t necessarily sharpen accountability, identify risks or, critically, help solve problems.

2. Right people, right skills 

Today’s mega rail projects are now, more than ever, complex technological and system integration challenges. Competition for these skills is in high demand and customers need to actively invest and plan for bringing this talent into the team. Just like skills, it is important to recognize different leadership skills are required across the life cycle. 

3. “One Team” culture

A project needs a “One Team Culture that Owns the Whole” philosophy.  All mega projects experience tough times. The test of a healthy project culture is how folk react in those tough moments. You cannot know all the unknowns. But how the organizational culture responds in these moments is something you can control. 

4. Know your contractor & OEM

There has never been a more challenging nor pressing time to be a contractor in this space.  Large linear urban rail infrastructure projects carry more risk than typical vertical development. However, today’s economic environment further complicates all aspects of pricing risk.  Understanding these risks and creatively packing work to optimize risk sharing will provide the flexibility needed to meet the challenges facing the industry today.

Click here to read a Bechtel-sponsored report that identifies potential for infrastructure to support levelling up, net zero and energy security agendas.

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