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The biggest — and best — rail projects of all time


From stage-waggons in the 1680s that averaged 12 mph to high-speed railways that reach 268 mph in 2019, the world has seen an insurmountable transformation in transport, both in terms of speed and size. The British rail industry now employs over 225,000 people in the UK and over 428 million passenger journeys are made quarterly, which means business is booming and only likely to increase in the upcoming years. For aspiring railway engineers, this is great news as there is an abundance of opportunities available in the UK. Continue reading to learn about the biggest and best rail projects of all time which had a massive social and economic significance in the rail industry.

The fastest trains

The Shanghai Maglev Train (otherwise, the Shanghai Transrapid) is the world’s fastest commercially operating train, travelling at 268mph from Longyang Road station to Pudong International Airport, completing a 19-mile journey in just seven minutes. It runs on a magnetic levitation line which lacks friction to support its high speeds. Only three countries in the world – China, South Korea and Japan -utilise magnetic levitation technology which allows for quieter and smoother travel.

Japan’s famous bullet trains (shinkansen) delivered high-speed travel back in 1964 without magnetic levitation and averaged 200mph on a much longer route of 313 miles from Tokyo to Osaka. It was extremely progressive for its time since it was incredibly fast, reliable and safe, not to mention carbon efficient — using only 16% of the carbon dioxide car equivalent for the same journey. It achieved its high speeds by minimising the number of stops and maintaining a straight, level and elevated railway line. It’s fascinating to marvel at the revolutionary progress humanity has made in railway infrastructure since the invention of the first steam-powered locomotive in 1803.

The history of rail

George Stephenson became famous with the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 — the world’s first steam-powered public railway. It ran the first commercially successful inter-city locomotive which transported people 27 miles from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830. Steam engines themselves were discovered decades before by Cornish engineer, Richard Trevithick in 1803. Trevithick was a pioneer in the transport industry, a flame fanned by the Industrial Revolution.

In the simplest terms, steam engines worked by using a coal-fire to boil water and channel the steam into a cylinder which pushed a piston back and forth. Coal was cheap and abundant during the Industrial Revolution, however, to increase efficiency and fuel wastage, steam locomotives were almost entirely extinct by the 1980s and replaced with gasoline, diesel and electric powered locomotives instead.

Innovative rail projects

The first underground railway was also conceived close to home in the UK’s capital of London with the construction of the Metropolitan Railway in 1863 (now the Metropolitan line). The invention of the underground changed inner-city transport on a mass scale and was a turning point in the possibilities of rail transport. Technological innovation was also inspired by the rail industry, with the introduction of the contactless Oyster card in 2003, based on smart card technology that originated in China.

In 2019, London’s population is at an enormous 9.17 million and is predicted to reach 10.5 million by 2035. This densely populated city has a vital need to innovate its railway technologies to keep up with travellers demands and commuter crowds. The newest underground Elizabeth line – as part of the Crossrail project - is being constructed at the present moment with a £17.6 billion budget and consists of a 73-mile railway line running from Berkshire to Essex.

From travelling underground to travelling undersea, the HS1 (High Speed 1 or the Channel Tunnel Rail Link) railway project revolutionised rail travel and made travelling cross-border more accessible and transports numerous people daily.

The future of rail

The future of rail looks greener, faster and more efficient — but also more expensive. Works are underway to deliver the high-speed rail project, HS2, which will unite the north and south of England. It is set to be the most expensive high-speed project in existence costing £403 million per mile, estimated to cost £56 billion for the first phase and £104 billion overall.

More examples of high-budget railway projects include California’s High-Speed Rail, which is currently under construction and has a budget of £49 billion, AVE - Spain's high-speed railway network’s which cost £33.6 billion to build and Beijing–Shanghai High-Speed Railway at £25.3 billion.

In the future, there are likely to be rapid improvements in Wi-Fi, onboard entertainment and digital ticketing systems. These amenities are a world away from the morning newspaper that previous generations of commuters had. On par with improvements in efficiency and technology, driverless trains are already in place in many areas of the world — originating in Kobe, Japan (Port Island Line), spreading to northern France (Lille Metro) and London’s own Victoria line. ATO (automatic train operation) technology is constantly being developed to optimise productivity as the future of rail sees endless growth.

Jobs in rail with Orion

With multiple new projects on the rise in London and the UK, the future of rail looks exciting, and there’s no better time to get involved than now.

If you’re fascinated by railway infrastructure, consider a rail job with Orion Group. We work with a multitude of clients across a range of projects and are guaranteed to have a vacancy that piques your interest.

Orion Group has been recruiting for engineering and technology related roles for 35 years and work closely with candidates to propel them into a career they love. Get in touch with us to see how we can help you.

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