At Euston the team was looking forward to the long Easter weekend for months. But it was not preparing for a relaxing time off like everyone else - just the opposite. This was when the team really got down to it.
'At 11pm on the Easter Thursday we began the 'blockades', ' says Tony Webb of Balfour Beatty, and project director for the £125M remodelling of the Euston 'throat' - 2km of multi-track approaches into the station's 18 platforms.
Preparation, design and piecemeal work has been under way for 18 months. But now, signalling, tracks, ballast, power systems, overhead and third rail, high and low voltage and auxiliary are being ripped out and replaced. New gantries and foundations have to go in for signals and overhead line, there are new telecommunication cables and ducts, complex point interchanges and crossovers and are being rebuilt. Victorian brick retaining walls must be restored or extended for new track alignments and bridges widened.
But through all this, trains have to keep on running. So though the construction team - an alliance between civils contractor Balfour Beatty, client Railtrack, and signalling and M&E specialist Westinghouse (see box) - will get continuous possession of par ts of the station this summer, the heavy long distance Virgin trains and Silverlink commuter services will continue in and out of platforms, with 600 movements a day, and some 110,000 passengers.
'That will be slightly reduced when we switch to a summer timetable in May, ' says Lindsey Vamplew, Railtrack head of delivery on the southernmost of the West Coast Main Line route modernisation's three zones. 'And there is a small cutback on train numbers in the morning and evening peaks.'
But essentially, remodelling must not disrupt passengers. So weeks of roundthe-clock track possessions - 'blockading' a few platforms at a time - will be sequenced west to east along the station's length, beginning with the least used platforms. Trains will switch to the new line layouts as each part is completed, releasing platforms further down.
By September the bulk of the work will be completed, though the Euston Alliance continues into next year with remodelling, especially for signals, 14km beyond Willesden. Euston and Willesden signal boxes will go and operations will be concentrated at Wembley where a new control panel will be installed for solid state signalling.
The full contract, including this work, takes the whole project to £180M.
For Webb there is nothing fundamentally difficult about the civil and structural engineering, or the trackwork. Complexity lies with organisation and integration of the multitude of tasks the alliance needs to carry out.
'Unlike most jobs where you can run the various functions in sequence, ' he says, 'on railways everything must be done in parallel.' And safely too, adds deputy Alliance project director Dominic Baldwin of Railtrack. All operatives have a minimum of two days' training, he says, before being allowed even to step into a 'red zone' close to moving trains.
Disciplines work alongside each other on signals, overhead and third rail power systems, permanent way and 'very complex' telecommunications, and must be aware of how they affect one another.
This star ts at design level, also par t of the Alliance's remit, where a change in one system can affect the others. Design is done remotely in various offices throughout the UK and even in Australia; electronically transmitted drawings are co-ordinated, examined for interactions and approved for construction at the Euston site office.
But the process continues on site where the disciplines are 'tightly interwoven', says Webb. Civils work for drainage, walkways and cable routes is less tightly linked but must still fit in.
For all these, areas must be assigned, materials made available and machines provided. Rails, 30,000t of ballast, steel gantries and machines must all come in by train; virtually no other access is possible out as far as Willesden. Some 400 supply trains will be needed over the summer, loaded at a road-fed depot up the line. Each must fit into the operating timetables.
'We have a lot of smaller road/rail capable equipment, which also comes mainly by train, ' says Webb, including the likes of Komatsu PW170, 130 and 95 excavators, Case 988s and 888s, and the French specialist Mecalac 14MXT. There are tampers and a number of laser controlled dozers for spreading sub- ballast.
All this has to get back out again too, along with old ballast and so on. Small wonder that the team has looked to the army's Royal Corps of Logistics to see what can be learned, beyond construction planning skills. A one day course at Caterick impressed on everyone the need for robust two way communications. It also confirmed that a control centre for operations, with all the different senior managers together, could help minimise problems by speeding communications. Train movement co-ordinators will sit alongside signals and construction representatives.
Some 600 of around 1,000 possessions have already been ticked off, for retaining wall work, and blockade preparation. Of 15km of track renewal, 8km has been completed in this time, including some alongside platforms. A century old steel arch bowstring bridge carrying Regents Park Road has also been extended with a new piled pier and matched in steelwork. It allows for one more approach track.
With this much experience, maybe that is why the team was 'eager to get on' with the blockades and not too envious of the Easter crowds piling on to the trains for the long weekend.
When completed, trains will diverge further out than at present at Camden, from three up and three down lines - one more than before.
With new crossovers and points, train routing on to appropriate platforms should be simpler and faster, shaving a couple of minutes off journey times.
Maintenance will be less, especially as most current equipment, dating from the 1960s electrification, is nearing the end of its life.
Despite train speeds sometimes double previous limits, it should all be safer too, though drivers will need to acclimatise to the altered layouts.
'In fact, part of our job is to provide them a virtual reality training programme, ' says Webb, 'because the approaches will be quite different.'
Alliance by ability
Without the integrated team working made possible by the alliance contract structure at Euston, project logistics and planning would be much more difficult, agree Bob Webb and Dominic Baldwin. Both say they should be described as Euston Alliance project director and deputy, rather than as being from Balfour Beatty and Railtrack.
'The team management is based on ability, ' says Baldwin, 'with people from any of the three participants possibly assigned to any of the roles, and answering to someone from any of the three.' Specialisation remains but there is crossover of function where possible, from management to on the ground activity.
'If there is a problem it needs to be sorted out for the Alliance not dealt with in favour of one or other of the participants in the old adversarial way, ' adds Baldwin.
It means problems can be raised early, says Baldwin, without anyone holding back to safeguard their commercial interests. Problems are also raised directly rather than through a hierarchical chain with letters passing to and fro.
Accounting is 'open' and there is an arrangement to split cost savings achieved inside the Alliance, or overrun costs. Railtrack signs off design and construction from within the Alliance with processes audited.
Creating the structure was 'not easy' and certainly not a 'cuddly process' as partnering is sometimes seen, says Webb. It took several months to get it right, facilitated by Brown & Root which brought in experience from the petrochemical industry.
There was previously no model for the rail industry and therefore the Euston contract is at the forefront of the West Coast Main Line, says Lindsey Vamplew. He is one of six Alliance board directors, two from each participant, who review the operation but stand clear of day to day decision making.
Railtrack director of network development Robin Gisby is sanguine about the West Coast Main Line deal with Virgin Rail. 'At least someone got up and got on, ' he says. 'Without it we might still be discussing even beginning.'
The Virgin deal set deadlines for the route's upgrade, which have since seemed uncomfortably tight, with 125mph (200km/h) running for tilting trains to be achieved in just two years and 140mph (225km/h) in 2005. Both require substantial infrastructure investment to speed up lines and remove bottlenecks; nearly £6bn in what is one of the largest railway projects in Britain.
Gisby is confident of achieving the first and most of the second phase on time, though there are two sections of the second phase to go through the Transport & Works Act planning process, and these may not be ready until 2007. But these are both capacity upgrades required by the Rail Regulator to allow extra freight train capacity, and will not affect the Virgin Rail agreement.
It could be argued that without the two fixed dates there would be more scope for Railtrack to perfect the complex moving block signalling system that was a key part of the scheme agreed in 1998. The network manager was forced to drop the untried system at the end of last year (NCE 6 January) when it admitted it could not deliver the system with enough confidence by the required deadlines. That decision coincided with a massive jump in the estimated cost of the project from £2.2bn to £5.8bn.
Some of the extra cost is due to this change. Moving block, a computer controlled variable train envelope system, does away with costly fixed lineside signalling. Instead it uses sophisticated software and radio data links to monitor train positions continuously. And where conventional signalling prevents trains getting too close to one another by closing fixed sections of line as each train enters, moving block creates a safe envelope around the train that moves with it.
However, Gisby thinks it was a 'bit fantastical' to imagine that the system could have been developed in time for one of the most complex lines in Europe, with a huge mixture of train types from high speed inter city, short route commuter services and freight.
'There is one system now on the Docklands Light Railway with a slow line speed and a completely homogenous type of vehicle, ' he concedes. 'But it could not be developed for the Jubilee Line on the Underground and is not right for the West Coast'.
But accepting the fact is expensive.
Because it does away with fixed signal structures over hundreds of kilometres, the system would also have saved massive installation and maintenance costs.
But switching back to 'lamps on poles', as one observer put it, is by no means the only cause of the cost hike.
Instead says Gisby, a complete reassessment of the state of all types of infrastructure on the line has been made over the last nine months since the management team for the project was turned inside out.
'The previous assessment was fundamentally weak, ' he explains. 'And the new estimates now put the cost of renewal of assets at £4bn, instead of the £1.3bn that was being allowed for.'
Gisby describes the figure as 'not an easy number'. And he adds that Railtrack is having 'difficult discussions' with Rail Regulator Tom Winsor over exactly what proportion of the costs can be attributed to necessary renewal for life expired infrastructure and what extra spending is needed to enhance the line to new speeds and capacities.
The precise figures will depend on the scope of the second phase of the upgrade. Apart from the 225km/h fast train paths for Virgin, Railtrack has to provide spaces for other services and for freight, the latter to be at least an extra 42 train paths, and possibly 150.
Gisby says he has a team of 50 working on the detailed routeway integration plans from which detailed timetable projections can be made, proving the outputs achievable from various options. However, he points out that this is made more complex because of uncertainty over future requirements.
Re-bidding for the rail franchises means there are numerous variations on proposed line use which all interact.
Meanwhile, the first £1.7bn phase of works, is under way. Around £1bn of work is now committed, much for major junction remodelling at Euston, Proof House junction in Birmingham and Manchester South.