Suburban Trains: Around the World
While the issue of developing suburban train networks is attracting renewed media interest in France, it is just as topical outside our borders. How are these trains used on other continents? What are the challenges in terms of investment and governance? Our experts give us their analysis in India, the United States and Asia.
IN INDIA, ESSENTIAL TRAINS FOR PEOPLE
Under the aegis of the national company Indian Railways, seven cities have set up suburban train networks on different scales. The first of these, Mumbai, with 370 km of lines, carries nearly 8 million passengers a day on trains that can provide service every three minutes during rush hour. They run with open doors and are entirely manually operated. SYSTRA is studying the possibility of operating them with closed doors and an air conditioning system.
In Delhi and Hyderabad, the existing networks, although extensive, are in direct competition with the metro networks, which account for the vast majority of investment.
Yet these trains are vitally important to the working classes: they are the only ones that can transport fruit and vegetable, fish and dairy vendors and their goods from their homes to the local market stalls.
They are also an essential cog in the wheel for workers, for whom a metro pass, up to 4 times more expensive, is unaffordable. 30% of the population currently lives in “urban areas” but this share will rise to over 50% by 2050. This fast-paced development cannot be sustained by the metro alone.
However, the fragmentation of governance and the concentration of investment, both national and foreign, on a single mode of transport, is holding back the development of new suburban rail projects.
Nevertheless, SYSTRA is working closely with Indian Railways, which appreciates our technical expertise, as well as our international experience in opening up new prospects for these daily trains.
IN THE UNITED STATES, COMPETITION FROM CARS
In the land of the car, the notions of urban and suburban are relatively blurred. Like Los Angeles, the cities are multicentric, and their networks are multidistributed. Commuter rail, which is closest to the French RER, generally has a fairly weak service, concentrated on commuting at the beginning and end of the day, on suburb-centre routes.
In addition, the health crisis has reopened the debate on the densification of existing networks, particularly in view of the changes in the flow of people brought about by teleworking and hybrid modes of work. Preference seems to be given to light rail projects, urban services or improving the quality of service on existing lines, as is being done, with the help of SYSTRA, on the San Francisco Bay Area BART.
The Biden administration has launched a major infrastructure plan, motivated by the imperatives of the ecological transition, but these federal impulses are still struggling to trickle down to the level of the states and cities, which are the only decision-makers in terms of mobility networks. Historically, public transport has been associated with the working class and the most disadvantaged sections of the population: climbing the social ladder is done by private car, to the detriment of public transport.
Most of the rail network is owned by freight companies that give priority to their operations. The lines are therefore little designed to serve the population basins, and investing in their densification in their current state would not really respond to mobility issues.
But things are moving, especially in a few cities, such as Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Austin, which are setting up local tax systems to finance new infrastructure. Of course, the situation is radically different in New York, or more broadly in the Tri-State Area, its urban area which stretches over three states: in this area which has 23.6 million residents, the development of a public transport network has always been structuring and politically supported. The renovation of Penn Station and Grand Central, two emblematic hubs which see more than 135 million passengers pass through each year, is the latest example.
SYSTRA has a strong presence throughout the country during the design and engineering phases, particularly on modernisation projects such as those in San Francisco and New York. Our technical expertise and our mastery of “new” technologies imported from Europe give us a head start on our American competitors. Our vision of public transport as a lever for development also allows us to bring a fresh perspective to these issues and to open up discussions on the basis of our international experience.
IN ASIA, A DENSIFICATION OF EXISTING NETWORKS
In an area as vast and heterogeneous as Asia, situations vary greatly from one country to another, but there are a few common points. As land acquisition is particularly complex, a large proportion of rail projects are carried out on existing railway rights of way that are densified, often with elevated tracks in viaducts.
The levels of maturity with regard to the commuter rail development strategy are very disparate: some cities or territories are already well advanced and have well-planned networks, such as Hong Kong, Singapore or Seoul. Other cities have no predefined strategies, and find themselves with a multitude of projects carried out by different actors with limited integration. This is particularly the case in the Philippines and Indonesia.
SYSTRA’s position in the region is particularly appreciated: our international expertise is a guarantee of credibility, and our permanent presence in many countries for decades is reassuring in terms of understanding the local context. In the rail sector, and more particularly in commuter rail, we have developed a good knowledge of existing practices and technologies (Japanese, Chinese, European, etc.) to be able to provide tailor-made solutions in a totally independent manner.
We know how to support our clients in a wide range of technologies and deliver a very high quality of service on projects with requirements that are sometimes much higher than what is expected in Europe. In some countries, notably HK and Singapore, breakdowns make the headlines! For example, we are involved in the North South Commuter Rail (NSCR) project in the Philippines, with studies for 18 solar-powered RER stations, but also in Hong Kong, for the planning of the rail network up to 2030, or in Thailand, on a hybrid high-speed and commuter rail project to serve the remote suburbs of Bangkok as well as 3 airports.