AS cities across the Asia Pacific region continue to expand, the transport infrastructure construction market here is forecast to grow by over 6% between 2022 and 2027, with metro and other rail infrastructure expected to play a major role in that growth.

With a view to strengthening its position in this market, in May this year design, engineering, and advisory company Aurecon appointed Dr Robin Wong as senior technical and commercial director, rail, for Asia, looking to draw on the experience he has gained during a 37-year career as a civil engineer. This has included positions at MTR of Hong Kong and Mott MacDonald, as well as working on metro projects in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Before joining Aurecon, Wong was general manager, capital works technical, at MTR, where his work included asset replacement activities as well as new build. As the oldest sections of the Hong Kong network are now over 30 years old, and with fellow Asian metro pioneer Singapore not far behind, keeping these assets in good condition while increasing capacity to meet current levels of demand will be an increasingly important task.

“Many existing railways are aging and are way past their design life, we need to think about renewing them,” Wong says. Passengers may be inconvenienced by the line closures necessary to carry out this work but it needs to be done, he stresses.

While electrical and mechanical systems are more easily replaced, civil engineering work is more of a challenge. “Both Hong Kong and Singapore are looking to new signalling and rolling stock to increase capacity - train performance can be improved - but the infrastructure is the restricting factor. You can only build in so much capacity, you have to agree on that at the start,” Wong says.

“Many existing railways are aging and are way past their design life, we need to think about renewing them.”

Getting project design right from the very start is crucial, Wong believes. “Sometimes, the clients do not have a clear idea of their requirements and place undue demands on civil engineers,” he says. The design needs to be fixed and agreement has to be reached between the different parties. “It may not be possible to have everything, as attempting to do so may increase the likelihood of the project encountering difficulties from the onset,” he says. At the same time, projects being built for the long term need to retain some degree of flexibility. “Why do most infrastructure projects go over budget and over schedule?” Wong asks. “It takes eight to 10 years to get from feasibility to opening, and during that time the world has changed. The project scope is very important. But if the environment changes, it must change to give people what they want.”

Communication between project teams is essential, while producing a design that takes into consideration the whole life of a project, including construction, operation and maintenance, has become easier with modern digital tools such as Building Information Modelling (BIM). “You need every aspect in place before you start,” Wong says, “and it takes a lot of time to get it right.” Different scenarios for design and construction can now be tested in a virtual environment, but only up to a point. “Things are going to be different on site,” he says, “but you can identify problems and avoid them at an early stage.”

Once the digital model of the project is complete, execution becomes easier but proper sequencing of work is still important, as is the overriding imperative to see the project as an integrated railway system. “We are building railways and not just infrastructure,” Wong points out. “Civil works may represent 60% of the project, but they are not the main element. The railway is the main element.” For engineers trained in the different disciplines required to build a new railway, this can often require a change of mindset, something Wong has seen at first hand in Hong Kong.

Human factors

Digital technology is also having an impact on railway operations, with metro operators increasingly looking to CBTC and ATO to reduce headways and increase capacity on their networks. Here, Wong sounds a note of caution, stressing that safety margins have to be maintained and suggesting that headways as low as 60 to 90 seconds may not be entirely beneficial. “Railways are made up of trains, infrastructure and people, and it is the people that you can’t control,” he says. “Human factors are very important.”

Automation may reduce the need for staff, and potentially ease recruitment difficulties for metro operators, but for the consultancy sector retaining skills and recruiting the engineers and designers of the future may be something of a challenge. The attractiveness of Hong Kong for expatriate workers has waned, Wong feels, due to factors that may include less lucrative salaries and a less congenial political climate than before. “We need experienced people to guide the younger staff,” he says. “The old folks are still hanging on, but younger people are not coming into the industry at a time when there is more challenging work ahead.”

As is being widely experienced by operators and suppliers around the world, neither the rail sector nor the academic disciplines needed for engineering roles appear to be attractive enough to those who will form the workforce of the future. “Fewer and fewer people are choosing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, people are studying arts subjects, not physics,” Wong says. “Where are the engineers of the future coming from?”

To help remedy this situation, Aurecon has established strong partnerships with several universities, working with them to promote the wide range of opportunities available within the rail industry. This ranges from hosting seminars to actively participating in university career fairs, not only to provide career guidance but also to facilitate a deeper understanding of roles within the sector.

The company also actively participates in industry association events and networking events, raising awareness of the sector and highlighting the potential it holds for aspiring professionals.

Recognising the power of digital platforms, Aurecon has established a robust online presence, leveraging social media channels and maintaining an active blog to interact directly with a younger audience, showcasing the innovative nature of the rail industry and the unique opportunities it offers.