High Speed Rail and BIMAECbytes Feature (March 18, 2015)

Living in California, it was very interesting to hear that the planned High Speed Rail (HSR) initiative, which has been under consideration since the 1980s, finally got the go-ahead. The ground-breaking for this project was held in Fresno on 6 January, 2015. Of course, projects like these are first and foremost, political decisions, and they have to be approved by voters. Even when the need for such a project is identified and found to be compelling, there are so many additional aspects that have to be considered, including the budget, transportation alternatives, impact on congestion, the extent of disruption to existing infrastructure, and so on. However, once all these come though and a project like this gets the go-ahead, it is a huge deal from an infrastructure perspective. While the exact mechanics of how the trains will operate and the speeds they will achieve belong to the domain of automotive engineering, the AEC industry gets the task of laying out all the train tracks and building all the train stations that will be needed.

With the increasing implementation of BIM and model-based design, not just for buildings but also for infrastructure (see the recent AECbytes article, “Extending BIM to Infrastructure”), we would expect that the projected cost of any new HSR projects would be significantly lower than those projects already implemented in the pre-BIM era, taking into account the many benefits that BIM brings to the design and construction process. This was further reinforced by the recent presentation on London’s planned new High Speed Two rail network (also called HS2) at the Bentley Year in Infrastructure conference last October, where BIM was being seen as the “lifeblood” of the project, not just for designing and constructing HS2 virtually but also for operating it over the course of its 150+ year lifecycle. Given the 20 to 30 year gestation and construction period of HSR projects, it may be too early to determine what the actual impact of BIM implementation on them will be; however, there is some early work being done with BIM on parts of these projects that should be able to provide us with a better idea of its potential.

Before getting into the BIM aspect, let’s take a quick look at the current status of HSR projects around the globe.   

High Speed Rail Projects around the World

High Speed Rail is defined as a type of rail transport that operates significantly faster than traditional rail traffic, typically at a speed over 200 km/h (125 mph). Japan was the first country that developed HSR—it went into operation in 1964 and was widely known as the “bullet train.” Since then, many countries have developed HSR to connect major cities, including Austria, Belgium, Britain, China, France (Figure 1), Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. It continues to be expanded in many of these countries while also being planned in several more. While most of the planned HSR projects are still at the feasibility study stage, a few are under construction such as a 66 km section in Algeria on which construction began in 2011, and a 200 km section in Morocco on which construction began in 2011. HSR is also part of a 2200 km rail network being planned by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia). In particular, Qatar, which will be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup (see the article on FIFA World Cup Stadiums in the Q2 2014 issue of AECbytes Magazine) has announced planned HSR links to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in time for that event.

Figure 1. One of the first HSR trains in Gare de Lyon in France, as early as in 1982. (Courtesy: Public domain Wikimedia Commons)

The case for HSR is most compelling in high-population, high-density areas, which is true of almost all the countries that have implemented it, despite the high costs. Taking a closer look at one example, Taiwan has a HSR line that runs along the west coast of the country, from the national capital Taipei to the southern city of Kaohsiung, reaching almost 90% of the population (Figure 2) Taiwan's rapid economic growth during the second half of the twentieth century saturated its highways, conventional rail, and air traffic systems, leading to the idea of a new high-speed rail line in the 1970s. Informal planning on it began in 1980, a feasibility study was completed in 1990, the project formally commenced in 1997, and the line started operation in 2007. Construction of the system took more than 2,000 professional engineers and over six years to complete. As shown in the map, eight stations on the line are operational; four more are planned and expected to be completed within the next two years. (One of these planned new stations, Chunghwa, was designed using BIM, as we will see later.)

Figure 2. Map of Taiwan’s HSR line, showing the route, the stations that are operational, and the stations that are planned. (Courtesy: Public domain Wikimedia Commons)

In the United States, HSR has not gained a lot of traction so far, given the vast land mass of the country and relatively low population density compared to countries in Asia and Europe in which HSR is well established. Nevertheless, there are high-population, high-density pockets, even in the US, that can benefit from HSR, and studies for it started all the way back in the 1960s. However, most of these studies did not materialize into actual projects and, to date, the only example of HSR that is in operation in the US is a line between Washington, D.C. and Boston via New York City and Philadelphia along the Northeast Corridor, also called the Acela Express. While plans for other HSR systems are being studied in different parts of the country, the HSR implementation in California is the only one that has been formally approved and gotten underway (Figure 3). When it is built, the system will provide high-speed service between and among major cities, like Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, potentially linking San Francisco and Los Angeles in as little as two and a half hours. Construction has started on the first segment of the network between Fresno and Bakersfield, which is planned to be in operation by 2021. The line between Los Angeles and San Francisco is expected to be complete by 2029, and the extensions to San Diego and Sacramento will be planned thereafter.

Figure 3. Rendered image of the proposed high-speed trains for use in California. (Courtesy: California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Software for Rail Infrastructure

From a rail design and construction standpoint, the software that is used for high speed rail is the same as that used for conventional rail. In other words, there is no specialized software available—at least none has been developed so far—for high speed rail, in contrast to say, the domain of buildings, where a BIM application like the CATIA-based Digital Project (described in detail in the AECbytes research report, BIM Evaluation Study)—which is very powerful, very complex, and also very expensive—is favored by “signature” architects such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon one’s perspective, there is no such thing as “signature” rail design—yet.   

Thus, to explore the use of BIM in HSR projects, we have to look at the software available for rail design in general, which, as it turns out, is much more limited than the wide variety of BIM applications and third-party plug-ins available for buildings. Autodesk and Bentley are still the main—and almost only—developers of software for different kinds of infrastructure, including rail. For Autodesk, the main infrastructure design applications are the long-established AutoCAD Civil 3D and the newer InfraWorks 360, both of which were described in detail in the recent AECbytes article, “Extending BIM to Infrastructure.” AutoCAD Civil 3D, which is primarily a civil engineering application used for the detailed design, analysis, and documentation of individual infrastructure projects, has a Rail Layout Module with discipline-specific capabilities for rail design as part of its productivity toolset available to subscribers (Figure 4). On the other hand, InfraWorks 360, a broader tool for the planning, modeling, design and visualization of infrastructure projects in the context of larger city and regional models (Figure 5), does not yet have any rail-specific module, although it does have discipline-specific vertical applications for other infrastructure types such as roadways, bridges, and drainage.

Figure 4. Detailed rail design using the Rail Layout Module of AutoCAD Civil 3D. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

Figure 5. Planning a railway corridor (shown in yellow) in the context of its larger regional model in InfraWorks 360. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

In the case of Bentley, its diverse portfolio of infrastructure solutions—used in many of the largest and most complex infrastructure projects around the world—does include a dedicated solution for the preliminary and detailed 3D design of rail infrastructure. It is called Bentley Rail Track, and it combines the capabilities of two dedicated rail design applications that Bentley acquired several years ago: InRail, which was part of the InRoads suite that it acquired from Intergraph in 2000; and MXRAIL, part of the MX suite that it acquired from Infrasoft in 2003. Given the long history of these applications, they are well established in the rail design industry and include the needed technical capabilities for track alignment design, analysis, optimization, turnouts, and corridor modeling (Figure 6). With their integration into Bentley’s product line, they inherit the robustness and interoperability of its platform as well as its CAD and BIM capabilities. And although there is no specialized software for HSR, as mentioned earlier, Bentley Rail Track does include functionality to support the Maglev (magnetic levitation) technology that is the key to developing high-speed trains.

Figure 6. The Bentley Rail Track solution has comprehensive capabilities for rail design. (Courtesy: Bentley)

The only other significant rail design software, apart from these solutions from Autodesk and Bentley, seems to be an application called Ferrovia, developed by CGS plus, a European company founded in 1990 that develops a variety of software and tools in the fields of transportation, infrastructure, and AEC that are widely used around the world. Ferrovia is a comprehensive application that is used by railway engineers for preliminary railway design, detailed geometry railway 3D models, and for technical documentation production. It plugs into AutoCAD, AutoCAD Civil 3D, and Bricscad, providing rail design capabilities within these applications (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Rail design in BricsCAD using the Ferrovia plug-in by CGS plus. (Courtesy: CGS plus)

BIM Implementation on High-Speed Rail Projects

As mentioned earlier, many of the HSR projects in existence today were implemented in the pre-BIM era, and with tools such as InRail and MXRAIL that are now part of Bentley. A prime example is the first HSR initiative in the UK, known as HS1 or the Channel Tunnel Rail, which opened in 2007. This is a high-speed line running 68 miles between London and the Channel Tunnel, connecting mainland Europe to the UK and reducing the travel time from London to Paris to half of what it was previously. HS1 was Britain’s first major new railway to be built for more than a century and it was implemented by a consortium of engineering and construction companies, using Bentley’s MicroStation, InRoads, and InRail products.

The more recent HSR projects that have been implemented also used the dedicated rail design capabilities of InRail or MXRAIL, which had by then been integrated into the more advanced Bentley Rail Track solution. These include the Madrid to Barcelona high-speed line in Spain which opened in 2008; the Casablanca-Marrakech TGV high-speed line in Morocco which opened in 2012; and a high-speed line running through the Atlas Mountains of Algeria which is currently under construction. Bentley software was also used for the first phase of the UK’s High Speed 2 (HS2) railway that is currently under development, more specifically for the Delta Junction in Birmingham where the main line coexists with branches to Birmingham and Leeds, creating complex structures and sections (Figure 8).  The junction was designed by Ineco—a leading transport engineering and consultancy firm that operates in over 45 countries—using Bentley Rail Track, MicroStation, and ProjectWise, which it credits for a reduction of 30% in the resources required for the project. And finally, with regard to the HSR projects planned in the Middle East including Qatar and Oman, many of the design, engineering, and construction firms who are part of the supply chain are using Bentley Rail Track and ProjectWise.

Figure 8. The HS2 Birmingham Delta Junction designed by Ineco using Bentley solutions. (Courtesy: Bentley)

In comparison to Bentley, Autodesk’s infrastructure solutions do not yet have the comprehensiveness and the range of functionality for rail design that Bentley Rail Track has, which is why we have, so far, seen much more usage of Bentley software on rail projects in general, and HSR in particular. However, that seems to be changing, especially with regard to InfraWorks 360, which is rapidly emerging as to “go-to” solution for conceptual planning and preliminary design of rail projects. Its ability to quickly sketch design ideas in the context of large city models, as well as generate compelling visualization and animations of the proposals for evaluation and client/public communication (Figure 9), are leading to its increasing use in the rail design industry which has, until now, been dominated by Bentley.

Figure 9. Use of InfraWorks 360 by leading infrastructure firm, Multiconsult, for designing and visualizing a new HSR line in Norway along its proposed route. (Courtesy: Multiconsult)

With its ability to model giant infrastructure projects. InfraWorks 360 is also playing a big role in the new California HSR project. It was used for some initial design intent visualizations and continues to be used to create the 3D models, animations and exhibits used for legislative approvals, public outreach, media and overall communication efforts. While design information about ongoing high-profile public infrastructure projects is typically hard to come by, a publicly available video shows an InfraWorks 360 visualization of the California HSR route emerging from Union Station in Los Angeles, after an initial flyover of the Port of Long Beach, up and over the Grapevine region and into the Central Valley (Figure 10). The model was created by Parsons Brinckerhoff, a large multinational engineering and design firm that works extensively on transportation projects, using data from USGS, USDA, the city and county of Los Angeles, as well as commercial data sources.

Figure 10. An image from the video of the new CA HSR line as it runs through the city of Los Angeles. (Courtesy: Autodesk)

And of course, we shouldn’t forget that individual railway stations are like any other building projects that can be designed using the regular BIM architecture and structure tools such as Revit, AECOsim, Tekla, etc. to realize the benefits of model-based design. For example, the Chunghwa Station in Taiwan’s HSR network, planned for completion this year, is being implemented using Tekla Structures (Figure 11). Also, in addition to tools with rail-specific design and analysis capabilities, applications for project management, clash detection, construction coordination, site logistics, construction simulation, quantity-takeoff, cost estimation, and so on, are also required—as in any infrastructure project—and would be very much part of the toolset for railway design firms and engineers.

Figure 11. Use of Tekla Structures to model the planned new Chunghwa Station in Taiwan’s HSR network. (Courtesy: Tekla)


Most HSR projects are too large and span across too many years for us to be able to quantify the benefits of using BIM on them. Even not accounting for inflation, it would be impossible to find an “apples-to-apples” comparison between a completed HSR project and one that is just getting off the ground. Thus, we cannot unequivocally state that the use of BIM would significantly lower the cost of new HSR projects than those implemented in the pre-BIM era, that the potential cost-savings might make such projects more compelling, as those well acquainted with BIM might expect. The “hard” proof for this is simply not there.

The individual firms that are commissioned to work on new HSR projects will, of course, employ all the state-of-the-art technologies available to them to make their own work processes more efficient to the extent that they can. That said, it is refreshing to find an enlightened client/owner like HS2 Ltd in the UK, which recognizes the importance of using BIM just for designing and constructing HS2 but also for operating it over the course of its 150+ years lifecycle. So far, there’s been no similar mandate from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the organization which is responsible for planning, designing, building, and operating California’s HSR system. It should be interesting to see if this ever happens, and if so, when.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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