The benefits of rail freight are widely acknowledged, and there are few countries that don’t have rail freight as an alternative to road freight. The economic arguments stack up because rail is faster, more sustainable and can move more bulk materials in one go.
It is no surprise then that the freight industry focusses on minimizing costs and time through effective logistics planning and improved technologies - it is an industry constantly looking to improve their service because this has real impact for the bottom line.
If only we treated transit passengers like we do freight!
A modern economy relies as much upon an efficient freight export-import system as it does on the quality of its transport system for its people. What we need to recognise is that just as there are economic benefits to rail freight, there are significant economic benefits from a more mobile population that can access employment and commerce.
It’s not just the connecting of people & places, there are also increased development opportunities along new rail networks. Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is the concept of creating high-quality pedestrian environments around rail or metro stations that could include residential and commercial facilities, ultimately encouraging people to spend time and live nearer stations.
This approach has numerous benefits, enabling growth without impacting on liveability and creating walkable areas where facilities are all close by and public transport is easily accessible. This then is a much more sustainable approach than continuing the urban sprawl, and land values near stations in well-designed liveable developments near metro stations are generally higher and increase faster. We can see successful models of this approach in countries like Hong Kong and Singapore.
Definitely the world is waking up to this opportunity and we are seeing more and more TOD planned into rail projects from inception. However at the operator and maintenance phase, more could be done on most rail networks to get the passenger experience right, and then reap the benefits that would come from that. Of course, in some instances proper planning and thought wasn’t given at the concept stage and therefore at the O&M stage there is limited opportunity to make changes that could improve the experience.
In this region we have a real opportunity to get it right as we embark on the journey to providing a region-wide rail network, both in terms of the passenger experience as well as capturing the long-term benefits of rail.
I chaired a conference recently on effective rail strategies and the Operator’s main lament was that the whole lifecycle of the rail project isn’t taken into account at the beginning, something I can sympathise with from several perspectives.
We are moving through the project phase here in the Middle East and now is the time to think about these issues. The things that define a good passenger journey are much the same as freight – minimal time & cost, reliability, safety - with the addition of things like comfort and accessibility. If we could take a leaf out of the freight industry’s book and focus on how to improve service right from the off we could really capitalize on this opportunity to have a world leading rail network.
Of course it is not as simple as that sounds; rail projects are hugely complex and involve a wide range of stakeholders and considerations. However, planning and designing our new passenger rail networks with the passenger experience at the core of the Project Requirements, will deliver the best outcomes.