An £85M blockade began last week on Europe's busiest route. Bernadette Redfern reports from the West Coast Main Line.
Modernisation of the 650km West Coast Main Line is going at full pelt and the latest closure is at Stockport station, just south of Manchester Piccadilly. Network Rail is busily renewing track, foundations and signalling equipment, with help from contractors Amec, Carillion and Atkins.
Managing this latest blockade is Phil Jackson, who works for Network Rail's project manager Bechtel. 'In the past it has been really difficult to get into this section of the line to do any work as it is the busiest route in Europe. Previous maintenance has been done over weekends, ' he says.
So a 10 week closure is a dream come true for railway engineers who have waited 40 years to renew this section of track. 'It is a once in a lifetime opportunity, ' says Jackson.
Engineers are working on 9km of track between Cheadle Hulme and Stockport for a total of nine weeks. They will upgrade or install 77 sets of points, renew 14km of track, place 60,000t of ballast, replace 21,000 sleepers, install 15km of concrete drainage pipes, renew five signal boxes and waterproof six bridges. At its peak 1,500 men will work on the project.
'Construction is scheduled for the first six weeks. In the last three we will put in the signalling and have some 'wheel free' time, ' says Jackson. The 'wheel free' time is so called because there are no trains running and it is used by engineers to test the new systems.
It is significant that three weeks have been allocated for this as it typically takes 7-10 days. If all the systems were new they could be tested offsite, but because there is to be a lot of retrofitting the testing must all be done insitu. 'This is a unique situation, ' claims Jackson.
Another major element of the scheme is the installation of drainage. 'Much of the existing drainage has deteriorated, ' says Jackson. Concrete pipes will be installed alongside the track at a depth of between 1m and 1.5m.
Surface water will be allowed to run off into local watercourses.
The £7.6bn West Coast Main Line project faces its first major milestone at the end of September with the introduction of the new 125mph timetable between Manchester, Birmingham and London.
Despite the upgrade at Stockport, short track lengths and big curves mean trains will not reach 125mph in this area.
'After this blockade there is going to be work to do on other lengths north of Manchester, ' reports Jackson.