Connected Through Collaborations
Building transcontinental railways requires the right mix of global partners to harmonize connectivity across different high-voltage power systems. By: Brian McGowan, Portfolio Manager, Insulation and Protection for Electrified Railways, Energy
Electrified rail provides a number of advantages over traditional rail, including greater reliability, higher operating speeds, and reduced carbon emissions. But projects for the massive expansion of electrified rail projects must address a host of engineering concerns. Railway electrification – especially on the scale of mega projects like intercontinental routes – requires a different approach to project planning and execution. These projects require broad technical expertise, ease of adaptability, and harmonized networks. When these are in place, engineers can build railways capable of connecting across continents where countries use different high-voltage power systems.
Mega projects will require collaboration that goes beyond broad experience and product portfolios. Operators will need partners that can also maintain a presence in the countries where they operate.
An example of this launched in early 2015. China, Peru, and Brazil announced plans for the Twin Ocean Railroad that would connect Brazil’s Porto do Açu on the Atlantic Coast with Peru’s Puerto Ilo on the Pacific Coast.The proposed 3,300-mile (5,310 km) route would cut shipping costs and transportation times between the coasts to facilitate faster, cheaper exports of iron, minerals, and soybeans to China. While this project is still in its early stages, it is representative of two larger trends: developing global economic partnerships through large multinational investments in infrastructure; and connecting entire continents via a combination of traditional and electrified railway.
Global contractors with specialized knowledge
Over the past decade, investment in new infrastructure has declined in Western Europe, while the focus on upgrading existing technology has increased. In some projects, traditional European railway builders have faced stiff competition from new Chinese contractors who have the product portfolio to apply in energy upgrades. Conversely, these same European contractors have found new markets for railway construction expertise in Asia. Specialization has created opportunities for smaller, regional contractors and OEMs to fill niche roles within complex multinational project teams. As projects of the future approach the mega-scope of the Twin Ocean endeavor, network operators will find it increasingly difficult to work with regional partners. Instead, operators will seek partners that can provide collaborative, customized solutions informed by advanced knowledge from a number of different industries. Possessing broad experience in energy distribution or factory automation, for example, will allow contractors to adapt solutions from another industry to meet challenges in railway scenarios. Simply owning a roster of global clients or active projects is not enough, however. Mega projects will require collaboration that goes beyond broad experience and product portfolios. Operators will need partners that can also maintain a presence in the countries where they operate. A sustained presence will allow organizations to provide network operators with a vast array of specialized, local support services and resources such as local manufacturing, distribution, engineering support, and local language installation guidance and training.
Adaptability is critical
Transferring knowledge and experience from project to project and across industries is always challenging. The next phases of ongoing mega projects like the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) Network will require not only extensive collaboration and shared knowledge, but also extreme adaptability. Among the many challenges of an undertaking the TAR, is the challenge presented by the variety of extreme and harsh environments encountered on its route. The proposed 80,900-km railway network will originate from the Pacific seaboard of Asia and end on the doorsteps of Europe. To date, more than 41 countries have been involved in the project. Engineering partners must be able to develop reliable electrification solutions for a range of environments, from humid coastlines to arid deserts to frozen tundra. Adaptability is a proven advantage for the largest global solution providers. For example, projects that are approved in one region are often re-approved in new or emerging markets. In order for mega projects to be successful, global providers must be able to adapt solutions from one region to another to significantly reduce time and development costs.
A number of factors influenced railway projects such as local specifications range and environmental conditions. TE’s local approach to manufacturing and design gives partners a clear advantage.
Harmonization of Networks
Harmonizing electric networks and achieving interoperability has been a major initiative in Europe during the last century. Changes have been slow as a result of the considerable economic investment and effort required and the effort to migrate a large 15kV network like Germany’s to meet the standard 25kV for Western Europe. (This in only considering the railway, not the signal systems, substations or rolling stock.) Ideal partners in the era of mega projects will need to support a range of applications and voltage requirements across the entire rail system. Creating forward looking solutions that anticipate future demands will ensure the future harmony of networks while also helping to eliminate the high cost of updating entire networks for new space or voltage requirements.
It is often said that the world is shrinking. The challenges of next-generation mega projects show that the world is a large and complex place. Building the next generation of intercontinental railways will require significant investment of time, engineering, and economic resources. However, the promise of connecting geographically and economically diverse regions via electrified railways is a pursuit that is worth changing the way we always do business, and rethinking how we develop partnerships around the world.