ARUP | UK firm supports Japan rail exports

Written by Sterling Content
May 24, 2019


Written by Sterling Content
May 24, 2019

Inside my Company: Arup

Arup presented an introduction to its newest offering, rail consultancy, at a BCCJ “Inside my Company” event designed to provide access to the heart of member firms, in April.

Founded in 1946 by Sir Ove Arup, the London-headquartered business has long provided engineering, design, planning, project management and consulting services for all aspects of the built environment. In October 2018, the Tokyo office set its sights on Japan’s rail business.

Arup’s move was in response to the Japanese government’s heavy investment in rail infrastructure worldwide and Arup’s growing experience working side by side with Japanese contractors in rail projects across Asia, including the Red Line in Bangkok, Metro Line 1 in Ho Chi Minh City and two lines in Singapore.

With offices in 35 countries and projects undertaken in 150 countries, the firm is well positioned to support Japan in its efforts, according to Alberto Battois, associate director and Japan rail lead at Arup. He told attendees that, thanks to its solid understanding of both domestic and international markets, the firm can act as a bridge, supporting Japan’s rail industry to carry out overseas projects. Moreover, as one of few foreign-registered firms in Japan providing multidisciplinary services to both outbound and inbound clients, Arup can offer something unique.

With 20 years’ experience in rail engineering and consulting in Japan, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, Battois is a respected expert in the sector. On moving to Tokyo for the first time in 2008, the Italian signalling engineer became one of the first Westerners to work in Japan’s signalling market and the only foreign engineer at his then-employer in Yokohama. 

The case for exports

Battois shared with attendees his excitement at launching Arup’s rail business last year as a core service alongside building engineering and management consulting.

“Our mission in Japan is to increase the profitability of the rail industry, which is trying to increase exports. Unfortunately, at present, most players are losing money. We have experience and know-how to help avoid that,” he said.

Exports are critical because “virtually no new rail lines are being built in Japan at the moment,” he explained. Unless exports grow, Japan’s rail industry will have to downsize. As it is currently larger than its French and German counterparts combined, the impact on the economy would be significant.

According to Battois, successful exporting is possible for Japan. Though growth in the industry in the 1960s was fuelled largely by domestic demand, it was supported by exports of rolling stock, rail systems and other infrastructure to Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Armed with international expertise and cultural understanding provided by Arup, he is confident that such exports can happen again.

Sharing global, cultural know-how

Arup’s rail business has three elements: business advisory, infrastructure design and rail engineering. According to Battois, the firm’s goal is to engage with Japanese rail operators, engineers, contractors and suppliers on cross-border opportunities and support traditionally domestic teams to develop a more global mindset. Among them are the JR Group, Tokyo Metro, Mitsubishi and Hitachi.

“We aim to help organisations work together and become global, by bringing experience and mitigating cultural and technical barriers,” he said. “We work as problem solvers, by improving the industry’s commercial focus, and work for organisational change, by improving processes and breaking silos.”

Battois pointed out the necessity of Arup’s work by using two case studies.

First, the adoption of curved platforms in overseas projects. “Many Japanese consultants have the habit of exporting the design of curved platforms used in crowded Tokyo—where space is a real issue—to developing countries, where straight platforms would be more suitable,” he explained. In one city in Vietnam, a third of stations have been designed with curved platforms, resulting in a lot of unnecessary outlay for contractors.

Second, the behaviour of people in other countries. Japanese firms, he said, have lost money because they were not anticipating acts of vandalism such as graffitiing of trains. Also, in India, more than £100 million has been lost in the past 10 years by passengers misusing emergency brakes to stop trains far from stations for personal reasons.

“We are working on not only engineering or business, but also the human touch,” he said. “We help our clients to understand cultural differences.”

The future of rail

In a lively Q&A session, Battois addressed innovation, including the Internet of Things (IoT) and automation.

In response to a question about the much-anticipated maglev Chuo Shinkansen, which is due to be operational in 2027, he said the technology is far from cutting-edge. It was first deployed in 1984, in Birmingham. Although some countries have introduced maglev trains, cost and maintenance difficulties have thwarted expansion. Until a breakthrough in technology to overcome these challenges, he predicted that maglev will not revolutionise the rail industry.

Rather, he heralded IoT as having started “a new way of thinking” about train maintenance. At present, crews are deployed at night to fix thousands of tracks that have been flagged as problematic by sensors, but Battois predicted that IoT would soon be able to prioritize which tracks should be fixed immediately and which simply require monitoring. Such a breakthrough would mean fewer staff are required to carry out inspections.

Moreover, following an earthquake, new technology would enable a machine to check rail infrastructure and report its findings, thereby reducing the length of time passengers would wait for lines to reopen. Following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Battois recalled that rail lines between Shinagawa and Yokohama were out of use for five days, but said technology under development would make such instances a thing of the past.

Regarding risk, he said riding on trains during and after earthquakes was extremely safe, but more needs to be done to improve the system of platform screen doors, which relies on sensors and visual inspection. A sensor error followed by failure to see someone or something trapped in the door, for example, could result in an accident. 

In closing, Battois noted that Japan’s rail industry is “committed to provide service that is the best” and welcomes connections with the UK. 

“The UK is perceived by the industry here to be the best country to enter in Europe. It may not be the easiest, but it’s the most open to foreign input, English is used, and regulations are not too prescriptive,” he said.

Produced by Sterling Content for the BCCJ