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Holding a line of thought

The £400M upgrade of the Trent Valley line will be the final piece of the £9bn West Coast Main Line upgrade. Ed Owen visited the project to see how new measures to stop possessions overrunning are working.

West Coast Main Line (WCML) improvements will have cost almost £9bn by the time they are complete at the end of the year. The cost of the project is so large it can be seen on graphs of Network Rail spending – from next year there is a marked decrease in the track operator’s budget. Network Rail’s budgets are not being slashed, but the WCML upgrade will finish along with the vast investment needed there.

Decreasing journey times and increasing efficiency has been the name of the game. To achieve this, various projects have been running simultaneously, for example, major track restructuring work at Rugby station, Warwickshire – which led to the infamous New Year overruns – and the £400M Trent Valley Four-tracking, or TV4.

Click here to view the TV4 track layout

TV4 is a 19km section of line upgrades between Tamworth and Armitage in Staffordshire and signalling upgrades along a 30km section between Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and Colwich, Staffordshire. Both were completed in a 16-day block.

The finished work upgrades the 19km section from two or three lines to four lines, removing a bottleneck. "TV4 will not decrease train running times significantly, but it will increase capacity," says Network Rail project manager Keith Riley. He has been working on TV4 for a decade: "Since it was just a piece of paper," he says.

TV4 improvements became a necessity when franchises for WCML were sold. "Until the resurgence in rail and freight, the line did not need an increasing number of trains," says Riley. "In the West Coast modernisation and re-franchising, there was a definite requirement to increase the frequency and speed of trains. "When Virgin put its bids in, it put in an increased step-change, to 140mph. Then the need for increasing capacity emerged," he says.

On a rail network as complex as the UK’s, there can be a number of reasons why a train is late. For example, a train heading from Manchester to London along the WCML, could, if slightly delayed, miss its slot. This delay can then be compounded if it is stuck behind a slower local train. "Between Nuneaton and Rugby is a three-track railway – it is part of the Rugby project. Now we are installing the fourth track," says Riley. "In the West Midlands, between Rugby and Coventry, it is all two-track."

Moving the system from two to four tracks enables fast trains to operate on one line and slower trains on another. This increases both capacity and puts a stop to the kind of delays described above. "The Trent Valley is a bottleneck, and this project will take that away," says Riley.

The improvements stemming from TV4 will be ready for the new timetables, due to be published in December. Possessions have been driven through using the command structure usually reserved for emergencies, to ensure projects are completed on time and that overruns, like those over the New Year, are not repeated. Since the Rugby debacle, Network Rail has looked again at the way it delivers work during possessions.

As before, as much of the work as possible is carried out before the possession – embankments are widened and alignments are set alongside the live railway.

But plans are now given increased scrutiny. "Lots of things are done in advance. Projects have to be ready 20 weeks out, and managers are expected to explain their plans and contingencies over a series of snapshots. You have a formal decision to take those plans forward," says Riley. "Seventy per cent of the TV4 widening was done without possessions. We started in January 2005 with 30 permanent way stages and 20 interim signalling steps," he says. "Where the track passes through a cutting, we made steeper cutting walls. We tried to create an environment where we can create good access."

It is then that the final work is carried out – in the case of TV4, a 16-day block when the track and signalling was completely rebuilt. Each possession is then taken into a command structure with a focus on communication and contingencies should the plans start to go awry.

"The [post-New Year] Rugby possession was identified as ‘silver’, with high-end work. Everyone has to know where you are. If the plan is moving away from where it is supposed to be this is communicated so contingency plans can be made," says Riley. "Command is then set to 'gold' so other stakeholders become involved [for example train operators] on an escalating basis to modify their plans. "You develop an hour-by-hour plan, fully resourced and design-approved. You also develop contingency plans with operators, so if you are not here by this time, you have to look at mitigation," he says.

"This same rigour was applied to TV4, which was completed without delay. "Nobody wants to be in the same position as last New Year. We had to provide additional rigour, with the presentation of the delivery plan for 2008, which was regulator-approved and we have been delivering," says Riley.

Contractors are also brought into Network Rail’s system. "Contractors have to go through readiness reviews, which they rate well," says Riley. Perhaps crucially on TV4, most of the contractor input was build-only from Network Rail designs, pushing much of the risk back into planning.

The result has been the removal of the bottleneck ready for when the new timetables are introduced. "Before the four-tracking, the speed limit was 125mph. Now it is 145mph, and 110mph on non-tilt trains. "The new signalling allows tracks to be used bi-directionally at a lower speed. The two inner tracks are bi-directional to allow running and maintenance," he says. Final tweaks need to be completed to bring the project to completion, but these will be carried out over weekend possessions up to Christmas.

“Before the four-tracking, the speed limit was 125mph. Now it is 145mph,
and 110mph on non-tilt trains”
Keith Riley, Network Rail

TV4 in figures:
1M.m3 of bulk earthworks
37 bridge structures extended, re-built or replaced
3 level crossings removed
145mph speed limit on the new track

TV4 - who's who
Such a long-running project has included a large number of players: Buckingham Group Contracting
Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering
Birse Rail
Norwest Holst
Galliford Try Construction
Edmund Nuttall
Carillion Rail
Babcock Rail
Lundy Projects
Stobart Rail
Signalling Solutions
Scott Wilson Railways
Bethell Rail
G-Scapes of Lichfield
HW Martin (Fencing Contractors)

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