HSR: PROCUREMENT DRIVES INNOVATION

This article appeared in the March edition of Rail Professional, 2016

An innovative concession model is driving new ideas on France’s South East Atlantic high-speed line. Are there lessons for the UK here, asks Steve Higham, SYSTRA UK’s engineering business director.

While most new rail projects, by their very nature, require innovation and adaptation, a visit to the South Europe Atlantic (SEA) high speed line being constructed between Tours and Bordeaux impresses with the number and scale of inventive ideas being employed there. The question “why do we do it like this?” has been asked again and again, with interesting results.

The driver for this innovation-seeking approach is the form of procurement. The model created by French rail infrastructure manager SNCF Réseau takes PPP to a new level: a fifty-year concession period with some of the most stringent availability targets ever seen in the industry. Global availability must be 99.98% which equates to less than 120 minutes of unavailability a year.

The result is a new mindset from COSEA, the joint-venture organisation designing and building the line. Rather than designing to meet the customer’s requirements, while taking into account buildability and economy, the goal here is to design a system that never fails.

The SEA is an important part of France’s growing high speed rail network, providing a 2 hour journey time from Paris to Bordeaux, a saving of around one hour, and further journey time reductions to Toulouse and Spain. As well as around 300km of high-speed line, the project includes 40km of standard railway, linking to existing lines. 

The new line is expected to bring economic and environmental benefits to towns along its route. As well as moving traffic from road to rail, reducing congestion and pollution, SEA will also free up capacity on existing lines for both passenger and freight services.

SNCF Réseau awarded the 50-year concession to LISEA, of which Vinci has a third share with infrastructure investment funds taking the rest. LISEA will provide half of the €7.8bn capital cost of the project, with the French Government paying the remainder.

LISEA will collect a return on its investment via tolls collected over the next half-century. This arrangement means that the concessionaire is taking the risk related to volume of traffic, a model which has been rejected by investors on subsequent French high-speed projects in favour of annual rent payments.

LISEA has employed joint venture COSEA to deliver the design and construction. MESEA, a 70:30 joint venture between Vinci and SYSTRA, will be responsible for the maintenance of the new line. 

COSEA, led by Vinci Construction, subcontracts out to five further specialist partnerships: design, infrastructure construction, power supply, track and catenary, and signalling and telecoms. SYSTRA has a share in four of the five sub-JVs, including 40% of the design package and 50% of the signalling and telecoms one.

Innovation in action

With the contractual requirement to keep trains running, and the ties between designer-constructor COSEA and maintainer MESEA, there has been a strong emphasis on designing with maintenance in mind.  Where possible, the need for maintenance has been designed out; elsewhere, systems which avoid the risk of potential disruption to rail services have been created.

For instance, the 250 bridges that cross over the new line have been designed so that there are no bearings on the piers next to the high speed line. Each one has been built using the same system: a pre-cast concrete ‘kit of parts’, all fabricated off site.

This combination of standardisation and offsite manufacture – which brings huge time savings – has also been employed in the construction of seven major viaducts that carry SEA across various valleys along its route. By using the precast, post-tensioned box sections, over 400 of which have been used in total, Vinci has been achieving rates of just two months to build an entire bridge deck.

As well as speed in bridge construction, this project is also achieving revolutionary rates of catenary installation and track laying, thanks to a total rethink of the track-bed construction – and hence the logistics. 

The SEA engineering team introduced a 140mm-thick layer of asphalt below the ballast which had two major benefits: first the depth of the track bed was reduced by 25 percent; and second, the asphalt layer has been used as the logistics spine for the project, in lieu of the usual arrangement which sees a haul road constructed alongside the railway line route. This allows the huge quantities of materials to be delivered to exactly the right place at exactly the right time, and minimises the impact of construction traffic on the local road network. 

Two logistics centres, managed by SYSTRA, serve the whole 300km length, with road vehicles rather than rail ones used to install the overhead lines and ballast. Rates such as 20 overhead line masts erected per team per day are far better than those achieved using conventional means.

Lessons for the UK?

Perhaps the strongest message from the SEA experience is that the form of procurement absolutely drives innovation. While the culture of the client and concessionaire teams is also a strong factor, these elements cannot compensate for a form of contract which punishes rather than encourages new ideas.

Even with procurement methods that allow early contractor involvement, a question-mark still remains over how designers can be incentivised to really innovate. In the SEA model, SYSTRA’s stake in the maintenance organisation provides both the motivation and the information paths to inform design.

SEA has also benefitted from the fact that the whole line has been let in one package which lends itself to the economies of scale necessary to benefit from standardisation.  Good ideas for both design and installation are naturally shared between all parts of the project.

In the UK we tend to divide rail projects into work packages, which means that each group of designers and constructors will be looking for innovations and efficiencies in parallel. A challenge for the UK’s HS2 project is to consider how best to join up innovative thinking across packages and disciplines and how to draw on the vast depth of high speed design-and-build experience that exists in the international supply chain which is lining up to be a part of our UK high-speed legacy.