Proof House junction had become one of the worst bottlenecks on the entire UK rail network. For a junction that had remained largely unchanged since the 1960s, 800 trains a day were causing overload.
Dating from the 1860s Proof House, which takes its name from a nearby weapons calibration facility, was increasingly constraining capacity on Europe's busiest railway, and was the worst performing junction in 1995. It was the railway equivalent of Spaghetti Junction.
But although a 19 day blockade was the well publicised focus of the contract, months of careful planning were the key to its success.
Railtrack was the client, with the project sponsored by WCRM and managed by Midlands Zone Project Delivery. Railtrack formed an alliance in 1999 with principal contractor Carillion and WS Atkins. Detailed design took from October that year up to the blockade last August.
Construction manager Lorne Gra, from Carillion Infrastructure Management explains that from day one, staff bonded as a team.
'From the outset we had shared offices and pulled together. Everybody felt they were working for the alliance and not their individual companies, ' he says. Subcontractors were bought in early to help with the planning and design. Weekly team building sessions were held under the stewardship of an independent consultant where questions were asked as to what was right and what was not.
Actions were then assigned to ensure that any problem raised was dealt with before the next session.
Staff were selected on the basis that they appeared to be suited to working in an alliance and were not seen as confrontational.
As Gray explains, people with an 'it's not my problem attitude' were not wanted.
Work started in February this year with three and a half hour possessions on Saturdays. This method of working proved to be both slow and expensive but was necessary to minimise work to be carried out during the blockade.
Carillion's view was that it was important to do as much pre-blockade as possible. This included under track crossings, cable running and modifying the overhead electric lines and signal structures.
Despite this extensive scheme of pre-blockade works, the schedule of work to be carried out in just 19 days was daunting.
It included the reconstruction of two 100 year old bridges, major strengthening works to two other bridges, partial reconstruction of three bridges, laying 3,500 sleepers and 15km of track with 36 signal posts and 20 overhead line masts, transporting 14,000t of ballast to the site and laying nearly 100km of cable.
The last train passed through the junction just before midnight on 9 August, and the team moved in for 19 days of round the clock work.
One of the first and most critical operations was to disconnect the miles and miles of obsolete cabling without causing any interference to the re-routed trains. However, just hours into the blockade, disaster struck. A contractor cutting through abandoned cable sliced through cables controlling the re-routing.
This plunged the diversion plan into chaos. Rather than causing the team to lose heart however, the incident acted a catalyst and as alliance project manager Mark Cutler puts it: 'galvanised everybody's efforts'.
Past lessons meant that a slow start had been deliberately programmed. As Gray explains: 'On previous contracts the programme was such that it had been impossible from the outset to keep to it. A slip at the start leads to a drop in staff morale and a constant battle to catch up.'
The Proof House programme allowed a steady build up and gradual staff training. The fact they were able to keep to the programme gave everyone a boost.
There were also problems with demolition work on the bridges where unexpected voids were found. This disrupted the carefully planned arrival of the box girders for the bridge, but the subcontractor worked round the clock pulling the losses back.
At the peak of the blockade there were 350 people working eight hour shifts. Supervisors worked extra time to ensure a smooth handover as the next shift got into its stride.
If problems or queries did arise the alliance arrangement was particularly beneficial and solutions were agreed quickly.
Personnel resources were also taken full advantage of as man marking was eliminated.
As the 19 days drew to a close it was all hands to the pump.
Engineers were surprised to find quantity surveyors out on site, even more so on the final day when they were actually spotted clearing vegetation. There were also stories of senior management landing bridge deck planks.
Gray explains: 'We were there telling people how to do it anyway, so decided we may as well do it ourselves and release the others to do something else.'
So with just minutes to spare, work was complete. After 19 days the multi disciplinary team had completed one of the most complex remodelling jobs seen on Britain's railways. Some 60% of the £36M contract had been completed in the blockade and delivered on time and to budget.
'This proved that alliancing does work and is the way forward, ' says Gray. 'It is the future.'
The alliance team
Railtrack Carillion Infrastructure Management WS Atkins The following agreement was drawn up and signed by the above parties:
The Alliance Agreement 1.Establishes the principles and objectives of the agreement and the required behaviour of the parties, such as:
Open book philosophy Openness and honesty Challenge and support Integrated teams Continuous support Continuous improvement 2. Defines the contractual relationships between the parties.
3. Defines the roles and responsibilities of the integrated project team and alliance board.