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Infrastructure 2012: Keeping the economy growing

While the country languishes in the economic doldrums the question on the mind of civil engineers is this: will 2012 be the year that an infrastructure led recovery begins to take hold?

After a 2011 perceived by most to have been little short of dire, there are now reasons to be optimistic. But one thing is clear - if now’s the time for growth, it will take an enormous effort.

Around the party conference season in the autumn, fears began to grow that in the midst of the scrum in which the political parties attempted to forge their individual identities, talk of infrastructure investment had fallen by the wayside. However, recent weeks - and the Autumn Statement specifically - have seen a growing volume of political rhetoric about the benefits of infrastructure investment, giving the construction industry a glimmer of hope.

An Olympic showcase

The belle of the summer ball next year will be the Olympic Games. This showcase for talent in sport will be juxtaposed against a backdrop of UK talent in infrastructure. And while there are gems in the Olympic Park, it will be a well-timed reminder of how the UK can deliver fit-for-purpose, efficient infrastructure.

The big build for the Games has been complete for some time to ensure a smooth and lengthy testing period. But an enormous engineering effort will be ramped up to ensure the capital readies itself to host the vast number of spectators, athletes and officials who will descend for a few weeks in mid-summer.

This means adapting current transport arrangements - it is doubtful that Transport for London commissioner Peter Hendy’s advice to Londoners to make way for visitors by “going for a pint” after work will be well heeded - and racing to complete key milestones on major schemes all around the city so that a Games-time shutdown of works doesn’t throw them off programme.

“Recent weeks have seen a growing volume of political rhetoric about the benefits of infrastructure investment”

All of which means workloads for many working in and around the capital will look fairly healthy in the first six months of 2012.

Widening of the M25 between junctions 16 and 23 and junctions 27 and 30 has to be done a smidgen before the Games in June, which will no doubt keep the ConnectPlus consortium and its subcontractors working solidly in the coming months. There is even more work to be done on the capital’s public transport.

King’s Cross station is on a mission to become one of the jewels in London’s crown. Despite it not being able to shed its rather dated green canopy in time for the Games, its Western concourse will be completed next year and the entire station refurbishment project is due to finish the following year.

Thameslink milestone

Thameslink is the one of the biggest schemes that will emerge into the sunlight in 2012, but even these last weeks of 2011 are seeing milestones being reached at an impressive rate. The first 12 car trains are due to start running any day.

In central London, Farringdon station’s new ticket hall was also due to be unveiled this week. This follows swiftly on from last week’s opening of the new South Bank entrance to Blackfriars station.

Thameslink’s counterpart, Crossrail, is gearing up for its biggest year yet. Workload will double this year as major tunnelling begins in earnest - although it is preparing itself as best as it can to navigate the programme around the Games.

Also on London’s railway, civil engineering work for the new South London Line, which involves laying 1.3km worth of new track, is expected to be complete early in the year, with services starting in December.

London on track

In other Tube news, the Victoria Line upgrade is scheduled for completion in 2012 with the next big upgrade - the Northern Line - ramps up with line closures for signalling works starting up and then trundling on until 2014. Big holes in the ground show that Victoria, Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street stations are in the midst of heavy civils works as part of TfL’s work to upgrade facilities, as well as to prepare the latter two for the arrival of Crossrail.

One of the more unexpected projects in the capital is London’s first cable car river crossing, the Emirates Air Line. Detailed design is substantially complete, with final approvals for the cable car system expected this month. Construction work is progressing with piling for its towers completed in October. Off-site tower fabrication continues, with the north intermediate tower, located close to the Royal Victoria Docklands Light Railway station, due to be erected early this month. The aspiration is that the new crossing will open in time for the Olympics.

“Major road schemes look likely to continue along the path already carved some months ago.”

Beyond London, chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement offered reassurance for future workload. It included an unexpected, yet very welcome, announcement of an additional road spend of £1.25bn over the current spending period (see feature 16). This was perhaps the government’s most significant demonstration in recent months that it now appreciates the value of vital infrastructure schemes.

It also represented a U-turn from its decision to scrap many schemes, including the £125M Kettering bypass, the £150M M1/M6 junction improvement and £160M A453 widening, along with two managed motorways schemes at the M3 from junctions 2 to 4a and the M6 junctions 10a to 13 which will receive a combined £270M.

Major road schemes look likely to continue along the path already carved some months ago. The Forth Replacement Crossing saw its design and build contract awarded this year to a consortium of Dragados, Hochtief, American Bridge International for £790M. Detailed design work - aided by design partners Grontmij, Gifford, Ramboll and Leonhardt Andra - is not due to be complete until the back end of 2012.

Bids in for Mersey Gateway

The £589M Mersey Gateway PFI received the green light in 2011. It expects to receive bids from consortiums wishing to prequalify before Christmas. There are understood to be seven or eight preparing to submit and three will be invited to tender in January. A preferred bidder announcement is due by the end of 2012 with construction set to start in 2013.

Relief for M25 users at Dartford is also now in sight, with a new crossing for the Lower Thames in London also backed in the Autumn Statement. Work to analyse three possible locations with a view to a public consultation in 2013 is underway.

“Two major projects likely to grab the headlines next year are the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point and the Thames Tunnel super sewer”

In the rail sector, one of the projects to watch will be the long-awaited electrification of the Great Western Main Line, which is due to be complete by 2016. Not as talked about is the electrification of the Liverpool to Manchester and Manchester to Preston lines, the first sections of which are due for completion in 2013 making 2012 likely to be an intense period of activity for contractors (see feature p14).

In the aviation sector, debate rumbles on about new airport runway capacity for London, but airports such as Gatwick and Heathrow continue with their own work programmes. Gatwick is investing £1bn from 2008 to 2014 and Heathrow operator BAA has a £5bn spend programme for the same period. This includes the well advanced Terminal 2 redevelopment, which at £1bn will soon accommodate an additional 20M passengers each year.

Energy projects grab limelight

Beyond transport, the two major projects that look likely to grab the headlines next year are the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point and the Thames Tunnel super sewer.

For Hinkley Point, 2012 will be dominated by negotiations with the government through the contracts for feed-in tariffs and its passage through the Infrastructure Planning Commission (see feature p22). It will take between six and nine months to review the application with the energy secretary due to make a decision in the last quarter of 2012.

Other energy schemes rumble on with the private-sector led investment in Round 3 offshore wind programme (see feature p20) and heavy duty investment in the resource intensive nuclear decommissioning programme offering sound payback in 2012.

“Industry insiders with long memories have a growing sense of déjà vu, and fear a repeat of the problems which faced High Speed 1”

On the Thames Tunnel, meanwhile, the second phase of public consultation will end on 10 February. Thames Water will then respond to the feedback from the public and the critical independent Selborne Commission report. It expects to publicise its planning consent application in mid 2012 (see p34).

The water sector is otherwise midway through its current five year spending programme, but interest surrounds the new water White Paper which aims to make the industry ever more efficient.

And then there is High Speed 2. Having received cross-party backing in the past, it may now be stalled by the inevitable nervousness of a Conservative transport secretary facing questions from the Tory dominated Chilterns constituencies.It was revealed last week that the ministerial decision on whether to proceed had been delayed until the beginning of the year at the earliest, in an appeasing attempt to look at further tunnelling under the area. Industry insiders with long memories have a growing sense of déjà vu, and fear a repeat of the problems which faced High Speed 1 where frequent route changes led to many years of setback.

“Opportunities may abound for private investors but it remains to be seen whether the government will release all the shackles”

This thorny issue of planning will top the agenda in April as the Localism Act and a host of document changes begin to take hold. Opportunities may abound for private sector investors who wish to take the lead on infrastructure projects. But it remains to be seen whether the government will be able to release all the shackles to encourage the level of investment it so frequently promises is the key to investment in infrastructure.

Navigating the bureaucracy of planning and financing will be the key issues in the coming months. But if the industry manages to do so - with a little help from the politicians - 2012 could offer a multitude of prospects.

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