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SYSTRA: Leaders in engineering

20 min

Following its commencing of work on the Tyne & Wear Metro in 1969, 2019 marks SYSTRA’s 50th anniversary of operating in the UK. Now the go-to engineering consultancy for high-speed rail in the sector, Quadrant Transport sat down with a handful of the company’s brightest minds to find out what really makes the consultancy firm tick.

It’s not often that you get the opportunity to become a world record holder. It’s a chance to become a pioneer in your field and have your name etched in history. But it’s even harder when faced with thousands of variables that need to be precisely tweaked and toggled to reach that end goal of greatness. So when SYSTRA engineers set out to break the world record for speed in high-speed rail with train-makers Alstom, the company was simply carrying on what it had always done: aspire. Pooling its wealth of expertise in high-speed rail across several continents, the team pushed the boundaries of the Train à Grande Vitesse’s (TGV) potential. Train power was doubled. Wheel size was increased. Voltage power in overhead catenary wires was heightened. Complete accuracy was required to the finest detail – even down to the 140km section of the LGV Est route with a downhill slope chosen to achieve top speed. After three months of testing, on 3 April 2007, the TGV achieved the world speed record for passenger trains on steel rails, at a velocious 574.8kmph (357.2mph) – an achievement which is yet to be trumped 12-years later.

The record breaking on the LGV Est high-speed line in France is an exceptional achievement in itself; but the success of the task is symbolic of the company’s approach to solutions for some of the world’s most complex and challenging transport system demands. With over two decades’ worth of experience in managing high-speed rail projects, and involvement in more than half of the high-speed routes around the world, SYSTRA’s people live, breathe, and sleep transport.

Founded in 1957, and majority-controlled by the state-owned public transport operator RATP Group and railway company SNCF, SYSTRA’s specialism has always been in transporting people where they want to go – speedily, safely, and successfully.


“We have three values that define everyday life at SYSTRA,” said Steve Higham, UK Engineering Director for the company. “They’re absolutely how we work, how we operate, how we roll. Our values are: bold leaders1hip, connected teams, and excellence.” These everyday values embody SYSTRA’s work on some of the world’s most innovative and crucial transport systems, and have carved out a role for SYSTRA in becoming the go-to engineering consultancy for transport system design, and development.

And what better way to show the company’s values than the flagship projects where SYSTRA has played a vital part? Take HS1, for example: completed in 2007, SYSTRA took the lead in design and construction engineering of track, supervision of construction work, design and implementation of the test programme, and preparation of maintenance for the new line. SYSTRA’s bold leadership approach connected stakeholders on the project and delivered excellence in safety assurance for signalling to civil engineering at St. Pancras station, across the 108km route, which is forecast to contribute more than £10bn to the UK’s national economy over its 60-year lifespan.

It may be the company’s connectivity with some of the brightest engineering minds in the world that separates them from the competition – a truly global 24/7 organisation, with engineers able to offer insight and provide solutions around the clock to UK projects whilst stationed in Brazil, India or South Korea. But while the company continues to make inroads in varying sectors of transport and infrastructure management – eco-design, aviation, and even further into conventional rail and light-rail forms – one continual message from team members at SYSTRA is that they are transport people through-and-through. Steve explained: “SYSTRA as an organisation was so appealing to me because of its approach to projects.

“SYSTRA is different. We seek out the complex. We seek out the difficult, risky stuff, because our teams can handle it. We look for technical projects where clients require specialist skills.

“This is what I love about our organisation. We are a transportation organisation. We’re focused on transportation, solely. It allows us to be the best at what we do. We don’t in any way dilute our proposition.”

Steve Higham’s excitement for helping connect people, places, and passions through transport systems is evident in the ambitious approach taken by SYSTRA to deliver on transport projects around the world. The company’s storied past of rail projects in the UK, from working on the Tyne and Wear Metro in 1969 to current major rail works including high speed rail in the UK and Crossrail, has meant that the team is extra proud this year, as SYSTRA is celebrating 50-years of operation in the UK. On 30 August, the company expanded its portfolio further with the acquisition of TSP Projects, an infrastructure services subsidiary of British Steel, saving hundreds of jobs in the UK. With over 3,000 contracts worldwide, and now over 7000-strong workforce in more than 80 countries, the organisation’s work is instrumental in moving millions of people, every day.

Subiyah Bridge

Role: Design the 48.5km Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah Causeway, composed by the Main Link of 36.1km to connect Kuwait City, Subiyah and the northern part of Kuwait and the 12.4km “Doha Link”. We worked with contractor CGCC (Combined Group Contracting Company) and HDEC (Hyundai Engineering & Construction)

Works: 250 SYSTRA engineers | 14,650 drawings | 1,510 bored piles | 1,190 pillars | £3.26bn for the two links

Delivery: Opened on 1 May 2019, journey times cut from 70 minutes to 20 minutes | Distance cut from 135km to 36km

SYSTRA’s work beyond high-speed rail highlights the multifaceted expertise of those working at the company. It was the principal designer for the Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al-Sabah Causeway – the world’s largest maritime bridge, at a record mind-boggling 34.1km. This is in two sections comprised of 26.4km on the Main Link and 7.72km on the Doha Link, the other 1.98km of road ramps.  Construction work on the causeway included creation of not one, but two artificial islands, two marinas, 30 buildings for management and maintenance, motorway interchanges, and a visitor centre with panoramic views over the bridge from the port of Shuwaikh area. Working as a design consultant, SYSTRA produced 14,650 drawings for the main link section, a result of the work of more than 250 staff from SYSTRA’S offices in France, Kuwait, Korea, Dubai, and India.

“One of the reasons we got noticed by the client was our collaboration with the contractors, Hyundai and CGCC, during the bid stage. We took apart the design and asked ‘how can we do this better’? We came up with something which reduced the overall programme cost, and was super innovative” UK Engineering Director Steve Higham explained. Consortium contractors CGCC and Hyundai came to SYSTRA with a challenge: to re-engineer and design a 60-metre precast pre-tensioned concrete box girder section, which would be the longest found anywhere in the world, capable of being fabricated, transported and installed safely across the Bay of Kuwait.

“We re-engineered it and designed the box girder section. The precast spans were transported from the precast yard at Subiyah using a huge barge and then installed using specialist cranes capable of lifting the units weighing in excess of 2000 tonnes.

Construction conditions were challenging, so the approach had to be flexible, “When the tide did not allow a direct installation by crane, the precast spans were placed on a transporter running on already erected spans and then installed into position by using a launching gantry,” Steve pointed out.

“Ultimately we were selected to work on this project because we came up with a beautifully precise design involving collaboration with the contractor. It’s quite something to see.” The completed bridge is constructed of 1,510 bored piles, 1,190 pillars, and 1,107 pre-cast and cast-in-place concrete beams.

The final product – a record breaking maritime bridge – was ultimately a huge success for the local people and the local economy. The distance between Kuwait City and the Subiyah area has been reduced to a third of its original distance, now just 36km, and the journey time has shrunk from 70 minutes to less than 20 minutes. The enhanced connectivity will facilitate growth in the northern regions of the country, reduce traffic congestion on surrounding roads. To cap it all, SYSTRA was awarded the Special Award for Infrastructure Project 2017 from the American Concrete Institute.

T0urs-Bordeaux Line

Role: Lead on design of the 340km Tours-Bordeaux route (302km between Tours and Bordeaux, 340km with 38km junctions), including scheme design, design of civil engineering structures | Management of power supplies for six of the 15 lots | Design and construction of track and catenary systems | Signalling and telecommunication design | Testing and commissioning | Maintenance participation with MESEA for 44-years until 2061

Works: 1000 structures including 19 viaducts, 250 crossover bridges | 1,300 catenary supports | 3m tonnes of ballast | 700 SYSTRA personnel involved during the six years of the project

Delivery: Opened on budget, ahead of schedule, as many as 20m passengers able to take advantage of the high-speed service on the line | Record time for HSL delivery in France | Largest public-private partnership signed in France (£6.9bn)

The 340km Tours-Bordeaux route is one of the largest European rail projects in recent memory: linking the cities of the Atlantic coast to the Paris region, eastern France, and through towards northern Europe, the high-speed line is expected to have a similar transformational impact to that anticipated from high speed rail in the UK.

Also known as the South Europe Atlantic high-speed rail (SEA), the line is expected to invigorate communities at stops along the route by cutting journey times between. Journey time has been slashed by 50 minutes to just 2 hours and 4 minutes between Paris and Bordeaux.

SYSTRA was part of the nucleus that made the £6.9bn project designs a reality. The French company was tasked with services including scheme design, design of civil engineering structures, management of power supplies of six of the 15 lots, and signalling and telecommunications design.

In addition to design, construction and testing & commissioning, SYSTRA formed a joint venture with VINCI to maintain the line for a 44-year period. Steve explained: “There’s lots of innovation and clever engineering gone into all the high-speed lines that we work on, the most recent being Tours-Bordeaux. When you’ve got to maintain the railway yourself for 44-years, it drives even more innovative thinking into the design. There are many examples of that, where we considered how to remove the requirement to put maintenance staff on the railway, adjacent to electricity, working at height. We designed out most of the bearings on bridging structures, eliminating the need for maintenance and removing the health and safety risks.

Steve noted that modular, off-site construction techniques were used widely across the project. For major viaducts, using around 400 standardised post-tensioned concrete box sections, each bridge deck was constructed in a swift two months. “There’s a real standardisation approach to the structures. For highways over-bridges, a standard design for structures of varying span lengths, has allowed the contractor to manufacture off-site, ship to sites, and bolt it together quickly and efficiently. This has resulted in significant cost and time savings and contributes to a safer environment for the construction workforce.

Opened in 2017, the SEA HSR line came in on budget and ahead of schedule, and is the latest in a lengthy list of successful high-speed rail projects for SYSTRA. One year after the line opened, it carried 6,322,761km of passenger journeys and 99.1% of trains ran without any delay.

Pushing Boundaries

SYSTRA is unique in that it has its very own R&D department led by Innovation Director, Tristan Vandeputte, who explains why: “We want to improve people’s day-to-day lives through a better experience of mobility such as tackling traffic congestion in cities. We innovate to create more sustainable infrastructure to reduce our impact upon the environment. We are constantly gathering new data on transport trends and demands – that way we stay ahead and relevant.”

“It’s our business to keep pace with innovation, and to push the boundaries on developing new solutions. It begins with the way that we deliver services through our transport modelling: we have to ask ourselves how we model autonomous vehicle use, for example, and then a set of vehicles driven by you and me: how do we model those interactions and make it all work? Does it make congestion worse? Better? All of these things have to be tackled.”

Tristan, elaborated more, “New technology has opened brand new possibilities for conventional public transport, and triggered the emergence of new transport modes and mobility altogether. Our current activities for traditional public transport has focused on analysing how new technologies, and in particular the gradual use of automation, may impact guided transportation systems performance towards increasing speed, capacity, safety and quality of service.

“Since 2015, we have worked with several partners on European wide research projects including SHIFT2RAIL. We optimized key elements of rail infrastructure components to develop predictive (future) maintenance regimes. Our team is also supporting the development of autonomous trains together with the French state owned rail operator SNCF.”

Tristan explained, “When it comes to ‘disruptive transport modes’ that are shaking up the new world order, our purpose is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of these new mobility solutions; evaluate their maturity, and then understand their potential impacts on future passenger experience.

“Since 2016, we have been part of the consultative technological committee of Virgin Hyperloop One, a company developing a radically different transportation technology – Hyperloop. In January 2017, the Californian company asked SYSTRA to assess the safety of the Hyperloop infrastructure in order to obtain the legal validation required. Our contribution has been award winning too, our team won the Dubai Future Foundation’s award for using BIM technology for Hyperloop station design.”

Tristan’s enthusiasm is infectious, he is keen to mention that his team has developed an effective ecological approach to current and future projects. “Our approach is to think of the second and third life of infrastructure in order to optimise its ecological footprint. For existing rail lines, it’s about decreasing the energy consumption of the line and improving its ecological efficiency. For new rail lines, it’s about improving design and construction techniques as well as operation and maintenance methods.”

A key element of ensuring transport systems are sustainable is effective planning. Katie Hall, Transport Planning Director at SYSTRA, is responsible for advising governments – at all levels – on their transport strategies. She said: “One of the most important trends is the link-up between transport and public health. It’s now accepted that there is an obesity crisis, and that active travel can play its part towards improving both physical and mental health. Encouraging people to include cycling and walking into their daily routine, perhaps through the commute to work or school can have enormous health benefits.”

Katie described how smart technology is also a key element of transport strategies, she said “We have developed a smart stations concept, which involves not just routes to the station but routes within stations. Smart stations offer a new experience for passengers; shifting focus towards pedestrians using new technologies including dynamic signage, sensory lighting and safety cameras to provide an enhanced, more pleasant station experience. Station operators also benefit from the ability to adjust these assets in real time, delivering more efficient, dynamic station management. We’re embedding this smart station ethos into the UK context, working with train operator West Midlands Trains for example to improve the station experience for passengers and increase the efficiency of how the station functions”.

Richard Hancox, Consultancy Director at SYSTRA who has been at the company for almost three decades, has witnessed the ever-changing demands from transport users, and more importantly for his role, has seen what solutions need to be created to meet demand. “Like all businesses we respond to the external environment and encourage our people to, for example, make better use of technology and offer more meaningful services to passengers.”

Richard was keen to point out that, “We’re increasingly focusing on big data, making best sense of many disparate data sources, whereas when I first joined the company none of the computing power was there, in fact we didn’t have the internet, yet many of the same principles of transport planning still apply, like identifying a baseline before planning for the future, we just do that now in so much more detail.”

The next generation

There is a crisis facing engineering in the UK. According to EngineeringUK, despite having 5.6 million people under employment in engineering, the UK continues to face a dearth in skills supply – with an annual shortfall of up to 59,000 engineering graduates to fill core roles. A staggering 46% of engineering employers surveyed reported recruitment difficulties, and perhaps even more concerning is that just 12.4% of all engineers in the UK are women.

Speaking to several different team members at SYSTRA, it was easy to see theimportance to the company of promoting engineering education in the UK. A passionate supporter of developing STEM subjects, with a third of its UK team being women, in June the company presented a £3000 donation to the Engineering Development Trust (EDT), one of the largest STEM skills providers in the UK, to enable 15 young women to become part of the EDT INSPIRE programme.

Engineering Director for UK, Steve Higham, detailed how SYSTRA approaches building its engineering teams for projects in the UK: “We’re a naturally diverse organisation which is perhaps to be expected of a truly international company. If we just consider gender balance, a third of our UK employees are female. We’re not stopping there – we’re pushing that even harder because we recognise the huge value in diversity. We’re not driving a diversity agenda because it’s socially acceptable, but because there is clear evidence to us that diversity makes this a better place to be. It gives us an advantage. We have found that diverse teams make better, faster decisions, and find it easier to reflect the customer, as a diverse team is more representative of those customers. Valuing diversity expedites recruitment of top talent to our signature team and has a measurable, positive impact on staff retention.

Andrew McNaughton, COO at SYSTRA, is vocal about what needs to be done to bridge the skills gap in engineering in the UK. Huge supporters of the National College for High Speed Rail, SYSTRA has taken on a number of apprentices from the very first intake at the Birmingham campus, all of whom are integrated members of their teams – but Andrew says that even more must be done to improve the skills of young engineers; “Today’s conversation is about how you ensure engineers and young people are able to join the workforce. For us it’s not just about design and engineering, it’s about managing projects and ultimately leading the business,” he said. “We look not just for technical capability in our recruits, but the behaviours and skills that demonstrate leadership capability, and ability to manage teams and projects – these candidates will be our leaders of the future.”

Rosario Barcena, a Spanish native and project director for SYSTRA, may be one of the best examples of the company’s approach in building diverse, talented project delivery teams. Rosario was awarded Rising Star in the engineering and science category of We Are The City, an award ceremony recognising current and future female leaders in work. Rosario outlined what has set the company apart in developing young women engineers: “I have found that SYSTRA recognises expertise and talent no matter what level you are at, and importantly understands the value of talent. That’s what’s rather unique.

“I’ve always been passionate about attracting younger talent into engineering. When I came into the UK I was quite surprised about how male-dominated the industry was. I realised that there were significant differences from how engineering is seen in Spain.”

A STEM ambassador and keen promoter of engineering subjects in schools, Rosario is changing the perception of what engineering actually involves. “It’s not just about wearing muddy boots, there are careers within engineering that do not require an engineering degree,” she argued. “In fact, we need to make those more accessible, appealing and attractive to anyone.

“For me it’s all about capturing and attracting talent into our industry: perhaps people returning to work and people who are not engineers but have right skills. We need to break the barriers of what engineering is about.”

 Keeping people moving

Having major roles on projects like HS2 and Crossrail in the UK means that SYSTRA is always in the spotlight. The company needs to utilise its elite worldwide expertise to ensure taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects are delivered successfully. Whether its large-scale works like Tours-Bordeaux and the Subiyah Bridge, all the way down to precision details of smart LED lighting at railway stations, one of SYSTRA’s greatest qualities is the level of quality in engineering that they have at their disposal at any time of day.

But what makes SYSTRA unique? Principal Engineer Dan Fyfield summed it up: despite SYSTRA being a large multinational company, its tight-knit community of engineers sets them apart.

“The sun never sets on SYSTRA,” he joked. “We’re everywhere, and we’re involved in some really big exciting projects all around the world. The culture of connectivity between our people – that we have genuinely developed – is so strong that if there’s a track expert based in Bordeaux, I can skype-call them to get answers to my questions pretty much immediately.

“Our reach is global. We are cohesive, we like to share and we prefer to collaborate – we genuinely enjoy helping out on other projects in different regions, because good engineering is about learning from each other.”

Dan’s comments on collaboration between people and across countries captures the essence of SYSTRA: transport people through-and-through, willing to do what they can to help their colleagues on the other side of the world. With many more exciting works in the pipeline and a relentless focus on bringing through the next wave of young, talented engineers, there’s no doubt that SYSTRA will continue to get people where they need to go for generations to come.