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SYSTRA Favours the Long Game

The article below was first published in the 1 August edition of Rail Magazine www.railmagazine.com

SYSTRA prides itself on its unique future-proofed approach to the design of high-speed railways and the systems needed to operate them. By considering whole lifecycle costs as a matter of course during each stage of design development, the company has carved itself a strong reputation for identifying innovative design interventions to new infrastructure that significantly reduces its ongoing operational and maintenance costs.

This has been demonstrated in a host of flagship international high-speed projects, as clients increasingly take longer term views of both capital (CAPEX) and operational (OPEX) expenditure in favour of a sharper focus on the total cost of ownership (TCO). For SYSTRA this has required not only a commitment to achieving and maintaining technical excellence but also robust planning for all lifecycle phases, so that a careful balance can be struck between a potential short-term rise in CAPEX that might be required to yield much larger and longer term reductions in OPEX.

SYSTRA’s Director, Railway Systems, Dominique Roux explains: “We approach and handle every project with this in mind between future operations and initial design. The trade-off is an interesting one and it hasn’t always been done right in the past, particularly considering how railways have been procured. “It might be that adjusting the design and increasing asset reliability, for example, adds cost in the construction phase but reduces the cost of long-term maintenance.

“It can be difficult to persuade clients sometimes that it’s the right thing to do, but we think that reducing OPEX doesn’t always have to cost much more in CAPEX, and we will always suggest the optimum trade-off.”

To successfully strike this balance, SYSTRA is able to not only call on its own experience in designing some 4,000 miles of high-speed railways in the last 30 years, but also the considerable operations and maintenance (O&M) expertise of its shareholder SNCF. As France’s national railway company, SNCF manages a network of some 20,000 miles - including 1,650 miles of high-speed lines - and operates 14,000 trains a day. According to Roux, this advantage also makes SYSTRA best placed to understand that the benefits of taking a longer term approach are not just financial.

This is because increasing asset availability and moving to a more predictive maintenance regime has been proven to lead to less disruptive maintenance which will, in turn, bring safety benefits to clients during construction and O&M and an improved passenger experience. He adds: “Some benefits are less quantifiable, such as the increased punctuality plus passenger comfort and satisfaction that comes from having greater asset availability”.

O&M that requires fewer possessions to be taken will mean reducing the need to run rail replacement bus services, for example. Safety is also increased through remote monitoring and predictive maintenance, and where diagnostic data can be generated by the infrastructure that will reduce the need for regular on-site inspections.

To achieve these objectives, SYSTRA works in close collaboration with infrastructure operators from day one of the design process in order to optimise the construction of new infrastructure for O&M. This collaboration is particularly effective in cases where SYSTRA not only has design responsibility but an ongoing O&M liability, such as the 302km SEA (South Europe Atlantic) line from Tours-Bordeaux, which opened in July 2017.

SYSTRA was involved in every stage of the delivery of Europe’s largest high-speed project to date, from civil engineering and railway equipment design through to dynamic and integration testing. It also has an ongoing role for the next 44 years as part of the MESEA Joint Venture to provide maintenance.

According to SYSTRA UK’s High-Speed Rail Director Julie Carrier, owning 30% of MESEA created an added incentive for its teams to find innovative ways to design for reduced O&M costs and to integrate cost-efficiency at all stages of the projects.

It is, however, a formula that the company is comfortable working with under a variety of contractual models, such as in Africa, where SYSTRA has been involved in a variety of design and build contracts for the continent’s first ever high-speed line between Tangier and Kenitra in Morocco. She says: “Working with SYSTRA means leaving the client to get on with their job while we continuously ensure that there is an O&M integrated design on their behalf. We are absolute perfectionists and only focused on getting to the right solution by using our global experience.

“We recognise that the largest benefits do not come when you design in silos, but when it is properly integrated with O&M. That worked particularly well on SEA where, as a shareholder, there is a direct financial impact which drives different behaviours and by taking a longer term view it means that everyone will succeed or fail together, and that building the railway is not just a walkaway project. “But it doesn’t have to be that way because we have people with the skills to apply that approach in any contractual model, such as Kenitra-Tangiers, where O&M is separate.”

Looking ahead to future projects, Carrier says that SYSTRA will continue to pioneer data-driven engineering design in order to further enhance the benefits of the company’s O&M-led design approach. By creating digital models to capture all project lifecycle data in 5D format [data based on the analysis of the three physical dimensions, plus time and cost factors], she says that virtual reality, and other forms of simulation that this type of data capture enables, will become vital in design validation and outcome prediction.

SYSTRA is creating bespoke digital tools to tackle this challenge, having achieved significant gains with the Crossrail project in its role as subcontractor to the delivery partner. She adds: “Some of the things we have developed in partnership on Crossrail on BIM [Building Information Modelling] is world leading. When I started in this industry many years ago, everybody wrote things down. Now information is stored in the cloud. This opens things up to real-time information processing and global models, and we can use that information to better plan asset management. “It’s hard to imagine right now what our railway will be like in 50 years’ time, but the concept of someone digging a hole in the ballast in between trains seems unlikely.

“Remotely controlled robots or drones will be undertaking these tasks in a less disruptive and a safer way of doing things. Our aim is to make this transition to data-driven asset management much easier.”

SYSTRA believes that a continued drive for optimal TCO, alongside commitment to excellence and innovation, is the only way the UK railway industry will achieve the long term improvements in safety, reliability and operational performance we are all striving for.