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Rail: Staffordshire Alliance is on track

The rail sector’s first pure alliance is set to deliver a £250M upgrade to the West Coast Main Line ahead of time and under budget.

Early gains

Piling for the line speed improvements

While experts and protesters debate the pros and cons of High Speed 2 (HS2), one of the arguments being used in favour of the project is the lack of capacity on the West Coast Main Line (WCML). The 641.6km route connecting London, the Midlands, the North West and Scotland is Britain’s busiest mainline railway, carrying 3M passengers a day.

Demand on the line has been growing dramatically for many years, and it now copes with 40% more passenger journeys and 60% more freight than it did 20 years ago. Forecasts suggest this growth will continue, with passenger demand set to double in the next 20 years.

West Coast Main Line

West Coast Main Line

This would mean the line reaches capacity within five years - too soon to wait for arguments over HS2 to be resolved.

Between 2002 and 2008 the WCML went through a massive £9bn upgrade, but one section was left out - a bottleneck around Stafford and the nearby village of Norton Bridge. With estimates for this section of the work hovering around the £1bn mark, it was taken out of the programme; but with the line as a whole now nearing capacity, something had to be done urgently.

“Originally this was part of the WCML upgrade, but it got taken out so that we could deliver the rest of [the upgrade],” explains Network Rail project sponsor Suzanne Mathieson. “The plan was always to do Stafford and Norton Bridge at a later date - this is that later date.”

The requirement for improving the WCML in the Stafford area is to create enough capacity to run two extra off-peak trains per hour in each direction between London Euston and the North West; one extra fast train per hour in each direction between Manchester and Birmingham; and one extra freight train per hour in each direction through Stafford. While a certain amount can be achieved through timetable adjustments, some major new infrastructure is also needed.

For a start, the line has received no significant investment since the 1960s, and the signalling system is life expired.

WCML – line improvements

WCML – line improvements

In addition, the current layout at Stafford station puts severe constraints on capacity through the area. And perhaps most significantly, two branches of the WCML currently meet at a flat junction near Norton Bridge that is wholly unsuited to running fast trains - “like putting a set of traffic lights in the middle of the M6”, says Ian Jones, alliance manager for Staffordshire Alliance.

For me, after 20 years in rail, it is really exciting - you don’t often get the opportunity to build new rail on a greenfield site

Staffordshire Alliance has been set up to deliver what Jones calls “the £250M solution” that will solve these problems and deliver the required capacity improvements. The fact that the cost is now £250M, rather than the previously estimated £940M, indicates how far the project has progressed already. The final price tag may be even lower, thanks to Network Rail’s decision to opt for a “pure alliance” - the first rail project to use this way of working (see box below).

Pure alliance

Alliances of any description are rare in the UK rail industry, so the decision to adopt a “pure alliance” to deliver the Staffordshire Area Improvements Programme may, from the outside, appear risky. But risk is what the alliance is all about - embracing it and sharing it.

What we’re doing here is the next step in alliancing, we’ve gone straight to an alliance agreement

In Australia, alliances abound, with an estimated one-third of publicly funded projects delivered through alliances. It is the Australian model that Network Rail was attracted to, rather than types of alliances used in other sectors of UK infrastructure.

“What we’re doing here is the next step in alliancing,” explains alliance manager Ian Jones. “We’ve gone straight to an alliance agreement, and all four parties are aligned to that.”

This differs from, say, alliances formed to deliver work in the water sector, where traditionally the individual organisations that win the contracts for design and construction are then pulled together to work in an alliance. At Stafford, companies that passed the initial stages of qualification were asked to get together as pre-formed alliances, supported by members of Network Rail’s project team.

The winning Staffordshire Alliance of Atkins, Laing O’Rourke, Network Rail and VolkerRail will be responsible for delivering the Stafford improvements project - everything from track works and civils to signalling and telecommunications.

Jones describes it as a “radically different employer/contractor relationship”, and says the alliance set-up is going so well that the work will be completed one year earlier than initially anticipated, with a 10% reduction in cost.

All four parties share in the scheme’s ‘pain and gain’ mechanism, with payment linked to behaviours, as well as to delivering the railway on the ground. “It’s very exciting, and I think this approach will be successful. I can see that already in the way the teams are interacting,” says Jones, who joined the project earlier this year. “I can see a highly motivated and engaged team who are passionate about what they’re doing.”


During the tender stage, Network Rail shortlisted a handful of designers, civils contractors and rail contractors that - among other capabilities - had the right approach to working in an alliance, then asked them to form their own teams for the final selection stage and to put in their bids. The result was Staffordshire Alliance, made up of Atkins, Laing O’Rourke, VolkerRail and Network Rail.

The alliance’s £250M solution consists of three packages of work: line speed improvements over a distance of 28.8km between Norton Bridge and Crewe to enable trains to run at 160km/h; re-signalling through Stafford; and grade separation at Norton Bridge.

The first of these packages, the line speed improvements, is substantially complete. It involved overhead line and track realignment and new signals. Although the cost of this package was only £4M, Jones says its importance should not be underestimated: “For me, as alliance manager, this element was fundamental. It gave us a good introduction of what our capabilities are.”

He adds: “Because this was the first commissioning we’ve done, there was a lot of learning for us. We learned to operate in a live rail environment.”

A lot of work is starting in May, it’s a very quick ramp up

Jones gives the example of installing new LED “banner” signals as part of the line speed improvements. Getting the four banner signals successfully installed and commissioned on this section has given the team confidence ahead of the Stafford re-signalling, where there will be 89 installations.

The second package, the Stafford re-signalling, includes adding a completely new 775m long goods loop and changing the station’s configuration so that all the platforms can be used for trains running in either direction. Work has just started on the programme, which is set to cost around £82M and is scheduled for commissioning in 2015.

The most disruptive elements of the re-signalling work will be carried out during bank holiday possessions, as well as by “piggybacking” on possessions being taken out on the line for other elements of the project, including a shut-down next Christmas that is needed for a key element of the Norton Bridge grade separation work.

For civil engineers, this third package is no doubt the most exciting part of the whole scheme - a £100M project to construct 9.6km of brand new railway including cuttings, embankments, a grade separated junction, 11 major structures and four river diversions. “For me, after 20 years in rail, this is the bit in the programme that is really exciting. You don’t often get the opportunity to build new rail on a greenfield site,” says Jones.

The Norton Bridge scheme has been designated as a “project of national significance”, so the planning process was handled by the Planning Inspectorate, which granted a Development Consent Order (DCO) on 31 March (see box, p18). This means work can now start on building the new line.


Some utility diversions have already been done, including a fuel pipeline diversion, as have some environmental mitigation works: 14km of newt fencing, 2km of hedge netting, and facilities for badgers, bats and barn owls.

Now that the DCO has been granted, the alliance can begin building the 5km of haul roads that will be used to keep construction traffic off local roads. Alongside the main compound at the south end of the site, the alliance is putting in a new railhead to bring in materials, including ballast and tracks - a move that will keep around 100 trucks a week off local roads.

Bulk earthworks are due to start next month, with around 650,000m3 or 1M.t of material - mainly Mercia mudstone - to be moved. The alliance is aiming for the job to be cut/fill neutral, with material excavated for the 2km of cutting going into landscape bunds and embankments.

Also starting now are some of the key structures, including five bridges taking the new line over rivers, four over-roads and two road-over rail bridges. “A lot of work is starting in May and June 2014,” says Norton Bridge project manager Matt Clark. “It’s a very quick ramp up.”

Among the first structures to be started will be bridges 5 and 5A, which are next to each other and form part of the grade separated junction.

Bridges 5 and 5A are key to our programme delivery because some of the material being generated through the cutting excavation is being used [on the other side] in landscape bunds or embankments, so the bridges have to be in place,” explains Clark.

While the greenfield section of the new line can be built without major disruption, the alliance has put in place a detailed possession strategy for handling the elements that interface with the existing network. The first of these will be an 82-hour possession next Christmas to install bridges over the WCML. Bank holiday closures throughout the next two years should eventually lead to the entire project being finished in August 2016.

Planning: smoothing the way with the local community

The Norton Bridge section of the Stafford Area Improvements Programme was subject to an exhaustive planning process that ended in March when transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin granted a Development Consent Order (DCO) - the equivalent of planning permission for a project deemed to be of national significance.

Consultation for the scheme began in October 2010, when Network Rail spent four months holding meetings with local residents.

This process helped to come up with the design that was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate in December 2012. The official six-month period for examining the scheme started in April 2013 - a process that included site visits and public meetings, as well as the opportunity for objectors to raise their concerns.

Planning inspector Mary O’Rourke submitted her report to the transport secretary on 3 January 2014, and he gave the go-ahead on 31 March.

The DCO gives Network Rail compulsory purchase orders on the route, but so far it has not had to use them. “We’ve tried to make sure we’ve had a good working relationship with all stakeholders over the years, so at this stage there are no surprises,” says Staffordshire Alliance communications manager Nigel Barber. “The DCO was four years in planning, and during that time we did an enormous amount of work with the stakeholders and local community.”

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