What defines a great rail project? Is it cost alone? Perhaps the ambition of those advocating it, or the difference – big or small, economically or socially – it will make to passengers, freight operators and nations and cities.
On all those fronts, 2017 promises to be a busy year, as work is completed or started, and planning applications progress, on numerous endeavours across the globe. From Europe to Africa and Australia, investments are being made and agreements signed.
And for those not featured in this roundup, the questions and intrigue remain; what will happen, for example, with Australia’s Cross River Rail or California’s high speed line? All in all, it will be another fascinating year.
Melbourne Metro Tunnel, Australia
The Melbourne Metro Tunnel is, according to the project team, currently in “the planning and design phase”, with a construction date set for some time next year, although this is subject to planning and environmental approval.
If these approvals are cleared, excavation work will begin in the centre of Melbourne, Australia for the tunnel and new stations, with up to 34 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of soil and rock removed beneath the city.
If all runs smoothly, it is expected that that the metro will open to the public in 2026, complete with two 9km tunnels, five new underground stations and two city stations connected to Flinders Street and Melbourne Central railway stations. The overall cost is expected to hit $11bn.
But, why a new metro? Estimates suggest that Melbourne’s population will double by 2050, and the project team believes that the extra capacity provided by a new rail link – possibly up to 39,000 more passengers during peak times – will be equivalent to removing 18,000 cars from the road during rush hour.
Standard Gauge Railway, Kenya
This railway project in Africa really is the definition of “large-scale” endeavour. Kenya Railways Corporation, with support from Chinese investment, is building a new standard gauge railway (SGR) link for passengers and freight between Mombasa, one of East Africa’s biggest ports, and Nairobi, the capital city.
The 609km-long line, costing approximately $3.8bn, could be completed by December next year, and has been hailed as the country’s biggest infrastructure undertaking since achieving independence in 1963. Reports claim it will cut journey times between Mombasa and Nairobi from the current ten hours to just over four.
But this is just the start of the overall SGR master plan, which, as part of the Kenya Vision 2030 development agenda, aims to connect Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, costing upwards of £13bn. A huge challenge, but one that, if successful, could revolutionise cross-border transport and trade in the region.
Additionally, in October Kenya started further construction work on a $1.5bn extension from Nairobi to Naivasha, known as phase 2A.
Come May next year, Crossrail – officially the Elizabeth line – will welcome its brand new fleet of trains to the track.
Initially, Transport for London will introduce the 66 Class 345, 200m-long trains – built by Bombardier – on the London Liverpool Street to Shenfield line, marking a significant milestone for Europe's largest construction project.
Train sets will start with seven carriages measuring 160m long, in order to fit existing platforms. Val Shawcross, deputy mayor for transport, said in July: “These state-of-the-art trains will play a key role in London's future, helping to deliver a modern, world-class transport system through the new Elizabeth line and enabling London's transport network to cope as our population rises.”
A driver simulator has been also installed at Ilford station, on the Elizabeth route, while other track tests are ongoing. According to a project update in October, 75% of work has been completed, in preparation for the full opening in December 2019.
And another question to consider: what might 2017 bring for Crossrail 2?
North-South Railway, Saudi Arabia
Early next year; that’s the date being reported for the start of passenger services on Saudi Arabia’s North-South Railway.
The 2,400km route, under construction by the Saudi Railway Company, is split between a 1,486km freight route and a 1,250km passenger line.
The railway will stop at Riyadh, Al-Majma’ah, Qasim, Hail and Jouf. Riyadh Governor Prince Faisal bin Bandar told local media during a trial run from Riyadh to Al Majma’ah in October: “We expect the train will officially operate within two to three months, at the beginning of 2017.”
A level two European Train Control System will be installed, to be managed by Thales for the first year.
Approximately four million tonnes of freight and two million passengers a year are expected to use the route.
Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high speed line, Singapore
Although this high-speed line is not due to open until 2026, next year could be a big one for its future success – or otherwise.
In July, the governments of Malaysia and Singapore signed a memorandum of understanding, detailing how the project will advance to its tentative scheduled opening. Work is now ongoing on the tender, which is expected to be issued next year.
Trains will run at a top speed of 300 km/h, with stations planned at Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Seremban, Ayer Keroh, Muar, Batu Pahat, Iskandar Puteri and Singapore. Officials state that the journey time from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore could be as little as 90 minutes.
“We have to get this right because the HSR will bring the two countries together,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at a joint press conference in July. “It will draw people and our economies together.
“We have a lot at stake and this is a major investment in terms of costing.” In fact, reports suggest the cost of the project could reach S$20.4bn.
High Speed 2, UK
You’d be hard-pressed to find a project that stirs up the depth, and breadth, of emotion that encases the UK’s High Speed 2 (HS2) scheme.
From government and business support, to local opposition and fury at alignment plans, it incorporates all of the difficulties that can transpire when radical, industry-changing, proposals are put forward.
Construction on phase one – running between London and Birmingham – is scheduled to begin next year. Note the word ‘scheduled’.
In September, the UK Government’s Public Accounts Committee told how it was not convinced that the timetable, to open phase one by 2026, was realistic, calling it “overly ambitious”.
And then there’s the issue of phase two, from the West Midlands to Leeds and Manchester. The government wants part of this route, from the Midlands to Crewe, to open in 2027, with the final stretch ready to go by around 2033.
2017 could be a pivotal year.