Beyond Speed: Five Key Lessons Learned From High-Speed Rail Projects

Written by David Cochrane, Senior Vice President and Transportation Program Director, WSP
David Cochrane, Senior Vice President and Transportation Program Director, WSP

David Cochrane, Senior Vice President and Transportation Program Director, WSP

Experience matters, and David Cochrane honed his in the realm of high-speed rail megaprojects (>$1bn), sharing valuable insights that can set these complex megaprojects on the right track.

High-speed rail (HSR) megaprojects are highly complex mega rail systems that can offer very significant benefits over competing transportation solutions. They achieve maximum impact when integrated into a wider complementary transport network and regional land use planning. Rail projects in general, and HSR projects are particularly complex megaprojects involving a mix of technical, political, economic, environmental, stakeholder land-use and engineering consideration that if not clearly defined at the outset can start to fail. What lessons can we learn from past and present projects to leverage those learnings and benefits to help inform future projects to be more successful? Defining success is critical here as these projects take a long time to plan, develop and deliver before they start to give a real return on their significant investment. This means that continued strategic / political leadership is essential to ensure such projects make it off the drawing board and deliver those long-term benefits.

In this article, David Cochrane, Senior Vice President, Project Management at WSP shares five lessons learned from the field, addresses the intricacies and challenges inherent to these complex megaprojects, and offers tried and proven recommendations.

1. People Perspective

For HSR megaprojects to succeed, they need to be driven by a wider transit and economic vision which is aligned to a transportation strategy to deliver clear outcomes that communities aspire to and support. HSR is a means to an end, not the end itself, more on this in section 2. Leadership in the form of cross-party political support and clear strategic thinking about holistic transport solutions provides the political impetus. This brings credibility and convening power to a project thereby unlocking funding from public and private sector sources together with the legal powers to build the railway. This support needs to be sustained over an extended period as the gestation period for HSR megaprojects is usually longer than short-term political cycles. HSR megaprojects can risk becoming political footballs that get buffeted by the changing political environment. These projects look to the future. They will deliver their benefits, not during our lifetime, but largely during our children and our grandchildren’s lifetimes. They need insightful leaders to commit to HSR as part of the strategic solution and articulate the benefits of these projects to the communities they serve. To do this, HSR needs to integrate into a wider transport and land use master planning strategy, forming an important part of the solution, but not the whole solution, bringing very significant opportunities for communities in the form of increased mobility, access to job opportunities and affordable housing.  In short, HSR provides long -term, decarbonised transit that has a level of resilience reflective of our current global climate challenge, to provide a level of reliability that existing infrastructure does not. This is an opportunity to bring people closer together and to where they want to be reliably and for many decades to come.

Effective community engagement lies at the heart of the people perspective. Building HSR is a significant financial commitment and can be disruptive to communities. It often impacts existing infrastructure during construction, so having a clear and coherent message that communities can subscribe to and support is fundamental. Having a vision for the project sits at the heart of the guiding principles for the project, building understanding and support. Traditionally, community engagement efforts have received greater levels of response from homeowners and retirees, who tend to be amongst the older members of our community. To appeal to the rest of the community, new methods of engaging the younger generation need to be developed, including more creative use of technology and social media. For example, in the UK HS2 Ltd has used state-of-the-art audio and visual technology that allows people to experience the effect of a passing high-speed train in their environment in a virtual reality ‘auralisation’ without and then with noise mitigation measures. Consideration should also be given to using ambassadors for the project that sit outside of politics e.g., those that can help influence business, minority, and special interest groups.

Another meaningful people element of HSR, is evidence from HSR mega-projects suggest that significant benefits accrue during construction by bringing high-skill jobs to those areas through which the route passes. For example, HS2 Ltd will employ over 30,000 people at peak construction including over 2,000 apprentices.

2. High Speed is a means to an end.

The benefits of high-speed are numerous but the term ‘high-speed’ is not one that is universally appreciated. It often gets in the way of more critical messaging about the benefits of HSR, majoring on the advantages of high-speed risks missing the point and distracting from the real benefits of building a new rail line. Whilst reduced journey times and the value of time ‘saved’ often provides the major contribution to business case benefits, this is just a reflection of the traditional approach to economic analysis and the short-term view that this engenders. The real benefits of HSR are encapsulated in the 3C’s concept. These are:


HSR provides a completely new dedicated long distance passenger route. Removing long distance passenger services from the existing network onto this new route releases capacity on the existing network for freight and passenger services. So, in addition to the HSR capacity added to the network, the ‘released’ capacity in the existing network delivers wider opportunities that can be exploited for the benefit of existing users and the wider community. Benefits also accrue through modal shift from existing air and highway networks to the new HSR services. Experience in Germany and France shows us that the medium distance metro to metro journeys are being replaced by HSR trips, and where those trips involve journey to hub airports they have replaced the short-haul flight. German airlines are actively partnering with the HSR operators to offer through ticketing that incorporates the HSR leg of the journey to the hub airport. Frankfurt is a particularly good example, of this where connecting journeys from surrounding cities such as Stuttgart, Dortmund, Leipzig, Koln etc., are offered as HSR options in Lufthansa’s ticketing system. This has been taken a step further in France where there are plans to remove all flights between cities that share a HSR connection in 2024.  Both of these approaches free up valuable airport capacity and relieves some pressure on that finite resource for long-haul services that don’t lend themselves to HSR.


HSR brings an unprecedented opportunity to review the connectivity requirements of a region going forward into the 2040’s and beyond, enhancing and complementing the legacy infrastructure that already exists. If properly integrated into the existing and proposed transport hubs, HSR enhances connectivity, reduces journey times, can unlock active travel opportunities, and with careful land-use planning, generates opportunities for value added development and Transit Oriented Development. These wider benefits, termed agglomeration benefits, integrate wider areas to become economically efficient and greater than the sum of their parts. For example, in the UK, Birmingham has already seen £5bn invested into the local economy in anticipation of HS2 arriving in the city in 10 years’ time.


Transport is the biggest single source of carbon emissions in the UK accounting for 26% in 2022, in the US this figure is 28% according to the EPA (2021).  Significantly reducing emissions from transport is essential in helping the global effort to meet the Paris Agreement. Travelling by electric train and particularly when using zero carbon energy is one of the most sustainable and efficient methods of travelling medium distances. It offers some of the lowest carbon emissions per passenger kilometre when compared with other transport modes.

So where does high-speed come in? Most major developed economies across the world have mature railway infrastructure supporting their transport systems, and where new intercity railways are being introduced, they are largely new lines that are fast in nature as the benefits derived from going fast are usually considered to be greater than any additional cost. If not, then lower speed options should be considered as an alternative. New HSR infrastructure is an alternative to upgrading existing mature infrastructure, a process that is intrusive, disruptive, and costly as evidenced by the UK West Coast Mainline upgrade in the early 2000’s. Whilst constructing a brand-new railway inevitably embeds carbon in the environment, through good design, reducing the amount of material used and using low carbon materials such as low carbon concrete, and recycled / lower energy steel this can be kept to a minimum. Clients should ensure that opportunities to reduce carbon in design are embedded from the very early stages of a project. If clients use incentivised key performance indicators to set carbon reduction targets against robust baselines during design and delivery stages, this can drive further innovation into the project while also ensuring that environmental sustainability criteria is an integral consideration as part of the decision-making process.

Clearly, articulating the benefits of HSR in terms of the 3C’s demonstrates much wider advantages than just faster journey times. The wider community can see direct benefits to them and begin to see HSR as part of a solution to the key issues that are addressed by the 3C’s, including land use, environmental stewardship, connectivity, transportation equity, and economic growth / development. Indeed, one could regard the essential ‘Community’ factors mentioned in section 1 above as a fourth ‘C‘ upon which the 3C’s are necessarily founded.

3. System Integration is vital.

HSR megaprojects are complex systems that require integration between the various elements, primarily: major civil assets, rail systems assets and rolling stock. Lessons from Crossrail in the UK demonstrated the need for these elements to be designed as one system. Here the delivery of the civil infrastructure, mainly tunnels and stations, leapt ahead of the rail systems. This left the track, power, control, and ventilation etc design behind to such an extent that when these two primary system elements needed to come together there were numerous gaps and interface / integration issues. This ultimately led to Crossrail opening three years late. This highlights the need to treat the railway as a digital or technology project that must be internally integrated and externally integrated where needed (e.g., with existing transportation infrastructure). Regardless of how exceptional these elements are in isolation, experience shows that if the integration is missing, the inevitable gaps when the elements come together will be detrimental to the project.

System integration should not be an overlay across the project, it needs to be in the DNA of it. So, when a bridge is being designed, the rail systems that will eventually inhabit that space are understood, the power and control systems are detailed and the passengers that will ride in the rolling stock are considered. The operational and maintenance requirements also need to be considered at the earliest opportunity. The railway will be in operation for many more years than it is in construction so understanding this is a primary consideration at the outset in essential.

4. HSR as an Environmental Opportunity.

HSR projects can be described as environmental projects with a railway running through them and this is often a helpful perspective to adopt. Seeking to deliver a positive environmental legacy should always be high on the agenda for all future projects. For example, at the start of the project, there was a desire that HS2 sought to achieve a neutral impact on replaceable biodiversity, and a target of ‘No Net Loss’ was used to capture this aspiration. This is the objective that went into the Phase 1 Bill, and this helped shape the project’s design. Over time, this target was viewed as being less ambitious than it could have been and in the subsequent phases of HS2, the objective became to deliver ‘Net Gain’ for replaceable biodiversity. The concept of a Green Corridor along the route has also evolved over time and is now a route wide aspiration. This Green Corridor is the largest single environmental project in the UK. It provides more than 33 square kilometres of new woodland, wildlife and river habitats alongside the line from the West Midlands to London, the equivalent of 23 new Hyde Parks lining the spine of the country. The Colne Valley Western Slopes is an example of large-scale environmental enhancement on HS2, with a focus on nature recovery, addressing complex climate change issues, and securing a meaningful project legacy. These are examples of how learning from other HSR projects can offer opportunities to provide new, improved, larger and better-connected green spaces for people and wildlife to enjoy.

Setting these as requirements at the start of the project, allows nature-based solutions and initiatives to be built into the project as it is developed, and they become part of the thinking within the project’s culture. So, if a drainage designer is designing a balancing pond or a watercourse diversion, they will engage their environmental specialists to think about what habitat can be created in the area to encourage greater biodiversity as part of the development of their design. If this is an intrinsic part of the project, it is much easier to incorporate, and more elegant and complete solutions can be deployed.

Every megaproject rightly aspires to net zero and sets itself targets to move toward this, and over time these become more challenging. For example, Crossrail’s target was to reduce embedded carbon by 10%, a few years later, HS2 is aspiring to 50%, and is hitting this target in many areas.

As mentioned earlier, an worthy of restating here, these targets are incredibly valuable as they inspire innovation and generate new approaches to designing out carbon, through efficient design and the use of low carbon materials. The next generation of megaprojects should aspire to more challenging carbon-reduction and nature recovery targets to take us much closer to ‘net gain’. This challenge is one that history shows the industry can rise to, so leaders should not be reluctant to put that ambition out there. Governments around the world are already being held to account when preparing policies and programmes that fail to meet international commitments on climate change. The convening power that HSR projects carry can bring industry partners together to initiate new approaches to solving today’s problems that can then cascade down into and benefit wider industry and help us address the climate challenge emergency. One example of this is WSP’s Modern Method of Construction (MMC) strategy which is a response to this growing challenge. MMC provides a safer, more efficient and sustainable alternative to traditional construction methods. With digital technologies at the core, it can improve the way we build everything across sectors including healthcare, property and buildings, and transport and infrastructure. Endorsed by the Government’s Construction Playbook, MMC will be critical in the UK’s economic and social recovery growth, while also tackling labour and skills shortages. For more information click here.

5. Leadership in Megaprojects

Projects have historically been affected by optimistic reporting and fear of failure. We are all familiar with the concept of ‘optimism bias’ in cost and schedule reporting, and this continues to permeate the industry. Clients, owners, politicians and stakeholder appetite to risk and the desire for precise budget estimates and opening dates have also contributed to perceived ‘failures.’

There is a call for an evolution away from purely collaborative working to a more collegiate approach where leaders in a project ‘own the whole’ and are curious about what is happening on the other side of the fence, indeed tearing down that fence and working in a truly collegiate, integrated manner. This approach seeks to remove siloed working that still endures in collaborative arrangements and the drive to establish ‘right for project’ decision making becomes the default solution mode.

Capable and competent leaders need to inspire and should not be afraid of bad news or penalise those that bring it to their attention. Culturally and historically, our industry has been the victim of watermelon reporting, partly driven by this fear, with everything on the outside showing green, but it is red below the surface. This does not help anyone, least of all the project leaders. A key aspect of success in megaprojects is open and honest reporting and the ability to speak truth to power. Competent leaders must aspire to know the true situation; too many leaders are content to receive monthly dashboards showing everything green and do not have the commitment to challenge that status. Only when the true situation is reported can a leader take the necessary action, and the earlier this is done, the easier it is to correct.

Lessons from almost every rail project tell us that landing the cost of a project to the nearest £1000 or on a specific opening date 10 – 15 years ahead is only ever going to be wrong. Megaprojects should avoid this by communicating in ranges or ‘windows of uncertainty’ regarding time, cost and even benefits. The shear complexity and longevity of these projects militates against deterministic predictions of exactly how much the project will cost the exact date it will open and the precise benefits that will accrue. Internally, a project should be targeting the lowest cost, the earliest completion date and maximum benefits, but external messaging needs to be more nuanced to account for the risks that exist in all complex megaprojects.

Owners’ appetite to risk needs to be carefully considered. There is a tendency in the UK for large clients to seek to off-load as much risk as possible to the supply chain. This is not usually the most effective approach. Traditional risk management wisdom  seeks to place the responsibility for a risk with the party best placed to deal with it, and this should be the approach adopted. Often risks are allocated to the supply chain during procurement but if they are not capable of managing them for whatever reason, costs and project delivery suffers, often resulting in those risks coming back in-house to the client to be managed. However,often this is done during a crisis, and the damage is already done, so we should instead seek to avoid this unreasonable risk transfer. Careful consideration needs to be given to the allocation of risk, especially integration risk described in section 3 above, which should be managed by the client / owner entity rather than a delivery contractor. This is where mature and experienced leadership yields significant benefits.

These five key lessons can help those involved in leading and developing HSR megaprojects avoid some of the pitfalls experienced on similar projects, like HS2 and Crossrail, and increases their chances of getting off the drawing board and into service.

Tags: ,