Last month French dignitaries gathered to see work begin on one of the biggest structures for the 302km Bordeaux-Tours South Europe Atlantic high speed rail line. Mark Hansford was there to meet the project team making it happen.
Many parallels are being drawn between France’s latest high speed rail project, the 302km long Tours-Bordeaux South Europe Atlantic (SEA) line and the 224km long phase one of High Speed 2 from London to Birmingham.
The distances are broadly comparable, the geographies of the routes are similar and the desired outcomes are identical - while cutting travel times between the two cities at either end of the route, the real goal is freeing up capacity for regional trains and freight.
What does differ wildly is the cost. The SEA line is expected to come in at €7.8bn (£6.6bn), while phase one of HS2 is currently pinned at £16.3bn - almost
There are differences. To counter environmental and local objections, more than half the HS2 route will be in cuttings or tunnels; HS2 also has to contend with terminating stations in central London and Birmingham. Both factors add greatly to the cost of HS2, whereas few tunnels and no stations are being built on the SEA line.
But that is not to say that the SEA line doesn’t have its own challenges. Over 500 major engineering structures including 19 viaducts, 15 grade-separated junctions and seven cut and cover tunnels will be built along the 302km of the new line and its 38km of connections to the existing network.
The 1,700m Veigné braced underpass in the Indre et Loire department, which will allow
the line to pass under a motorway, and the 1,377m Dordogne viaduct are the line’s longest structures. Phase one of HS2 has no such major bridges.
The SEA project also includes 10 connecting lines: St Avertin (south of Tours), Monts, La Celle St Avant, Migné Auxances (north of Poitiers), Fontaine le Comte (south of Poitiers), Juillé, Villognon (north of Angoulême), La Couronne (south of Angoulême), and Ambarès et Lagrave (north of Bordeaux). HS2 has no interconnections barring a mooted connection to HS1 just outside Euston and a link to the West Coast Main Line (WCML) north of Lichfield for services on to Manchester and Leeds.
And it has plenty of local and environmental issues to tackle too. The route passes through 117 municipalities in six administrative departments and also runs through 14 sites protected by the Habitats Directive. But rather than deal with these issues by tunnelling under them, the French have taken the more pragmatic approach of compensating. In towns and villages this has meant negotiating with local mayors over modest enhancements to structures such as bridges and in the countryside this has meant setting aside 3,000ha for offsetting measures.
More than a hundred meetings chaired by mayors were held over an 18-month period in 2011/12 to inform and consult the thousands of people living close to the project.
The SEA line is being funded through a mix of public and private cash.
Of the €7.8bn upfront investment required, €1bn is coming from French rail operator RFF and another €3bn is in
public subsidies paid by the state, local authorities and the European Union. Lisea itself is putting up just under half, or €3.8bn. Yet much of this is also state guaranteed, with Lisea’s equity contribution a mere €772M.
It is an approach that has worked, with little if any public protest against the scheme - to the delight of those financing and building it.
The project is being built as a public-private partnership by concessionaire Lisea, which holds a 50-year concession contract for the future line until 2061 (see box). Lisea is a -collection of banks and investors led by Vinci Concessions and its chairman Hervé Tricot is very pleased with progress. “Work is going very well,” he says. “I am happy and people are accepting the new railway,” he adds.
He’s happy because since the start of construction proper in February 2012 much progress has already been made by contractor Cosea, a joint venture led by Vinci Construction that includes a raft of French construction firms along with Dutch consultant Arcadis and Egis Rail.
As of March over 23.5Mm3 of material has been excavated, a further 7Mm3 backfilled, 201 engineering structures were under construction and 133,000 concrete railway sleepers -delivered.
And it’s all guns blazing wherever you look, with 29 worksites along the entire alignment. They include the main facilities from which around 50km of construction site are managed and secondary, smaller sites located close to engineering structures.
Right now work is focused on creating the bed level for the track by realigning the natural terrain, before handover for track and associated work starting in mid-2014. Testing will start in 2016 with the line entering service in 2017 - just five years after civils work began and six years after Lisea’s contract was signed phase one of HS2 will take nine years to build.
The public-private funding mechanism being used in France has been key to this, says Tricot. Lisea will get its money back through charging train operators to use the line, so the sooner it gets it in service, the sooner it recoups its investment (NCE 8 May).
“The project is going on speedily and one of the reasons for that is because it is a PPP,” he says. “Having private cash makes it in everyone’s interest to go faster.”
“The project is going on speedily and one of reasons for that is because it is a PPP.
Having private cash makes it in everyone’s interest to go faster”
This desire is being felt on the ground, with Cosea currently running earthworks 24/7 through two shifts in certain sections to catch up delays caused by the bad winter felt across Europe. Manpower across the project has been upped from 5,500 to 7,000.
“So here we are, in 2013 and already we have got 200 bridges and structures being built,” adds Cosea project director Xavier Neuschwander.
Neuschwander, a civil engineer, is proud of progress and also of the way the project has worked with the communities it affects. His firm has committed to hiring and training 1,700 people from communities along the route - and with France suffering record unemployment levels it was a major factor in
the project winning the support it did.
“The local population was very afraid of the impact we might have,” he acknowledges. “But we did a lot of consultation to ensure the project fitted in well. We also made the decision of hiring from the region. We have created a lot of jobs so all along the route everybody knows somebody who works for the project.
“So overall, in my opinion, the local population is happy,” he says.
Neuschwander is, of course, speaking at probably the largest worksite right now, site of the 1.4km long Viaduc de la Dordogne. Construction of this is in the hands of project director Stephane Carver and he is focused on the job at hand.
Already a temporary causeway has been built, spanning the river, to provide access for construction of the six river-based piers needed for the structure - 19 are needed in all. The river-based ones are being installed right now with the help of temporary cofferdams. Within these cofferdams concrete bases will be poured, each one sitting on top of pile cap and 13 reinforced concrete piles up to 41m deep. This work follows on fast behind the team installing the cofferdams, says Carver. “Building the cofferdams is underway and will finish in the summer. Meanwhile, the first pier will be coming out of the river in the next few days,” he explains.
In total 22,000m3 of concrete will be needed for the foundations. More will be needed for the superstructure, which is also being built insitu with prestresed concrete segments.
That work is so far advanced on a major structure is important, says Tricot. “It is important to show progress to the politicians who have supported us,” he says, “and to those who were against the PPP,” he adds.