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Nightly nicely Jarvis Rail is rethinking track possessions.

It is little wonder that Jarvis Rail claims to be among Britain's largest maintenance and track renewal contractors. The company literally breathes railways.

Based in the former York headquarters of British Rail's eastern region, with a state of the art central control room housed in the original, but now dilapidated, York rail station, Jarvis Rail boasts a staff total and equipment portfolio that would impress even the most traditional railway man.

There may be the odd, though important, 'new rail' businessmen and accountants on the team, but over 90% of managing director Bob Clarke's 5,000 staff are ex-BR through and through.

'I've been a railways man for over 30 years,' says Clarke. The last of BR's eastern region chief civil engineers is one of the first senior engineers to be invited to join Railtrack.

But it takes more than pedigree to grow a firm whose annual turnover has risen over two years from zero to an estimated £300M and now accounts for well over half the Jarvis group's total turnover. It takes, says Clarke, the lateral approach - to think like a client and know exactly what it wants most from a contractor.

'Railtrack's core business is to sell train paths,' says Clarke. 'When our engineers are blocking the line, Railtrack cannot do that.'

So the Jarvis team has focused 'clinically' on all operations that 'block the line' - track possessions, rail fault blackspots or repeated maintenance where renewal or enhancement could equate to a better whole life saving in train delays.

Soon after Jarvis entered the rail business as a track maintenance company in June 1996 by buying one of the original BR established infrastructure services units, Northern Infrastructure Maintenance, the firm made two important decisions: it had to be big and it had to question the BR dictat of planning most work around weekend track possessions.

Clarke immediately attacked the track renewals sector and, by the close of the following year, had bought two of the four contractors then serving the market.

But these firms - Fastline and Relayfast - had themselves already absorbed other players, allowing Jarvis to claim as its own some 60% of the original post privatisation track renewal contractors.

The rewards soon followed, and today this one-stop track maintenance and renewal organisation, Jarvis Rail, claims to have teams operating throughout the UK , bar East Anglia and the extreme south east.

Jarvis has just won three of Railtrack's five second-round five year track renewal contracts valued at about £100M a year. This allows it to boast responsibility for renewing over 22,000 track kilometres nationwide, including the prestigious East and West Coast Main Lines.

The company's track and infrastructure maintenance record is equally impressive. Its current portfolio of looking after 6,400 track kilometres, mainly across northern England, represents 20% of the ex-BR network. And responsibility for inspecting all East Coast Main Line structures allows Jarvis to place some 10,000 bridges, viaducts and tunnels on its check list.

Top of its non-Railtrack work currently is an £18M subcontract to lay 28km of light rail for Croydon Tram Link's main contractor, Amey/ Sir Robert McAlpine. And the company is currently shortlisted for a share in £100M worth of track remodelling at London's Euston station - the first of the lucrative packages on offer for the £600M West Coast Main Line upgrade.

To maintain such an impressive work list, Jarvis has questioned and re-analysed one of the railway profession's staunchest traditions - track possession time.

Programming important track renewals around several consecutive weekend possessions means that interim weekdays usually face line speed reductions as trains run on uncompacted new ballast. Today's business-led private railways will no longer tolerate such built in delays.

Much better, argues Jarvis, to replace shorter lengths of track in one operation - production line style - allowing the line to reopen the next morning without restrictions and at line speed. Targets could be met, says Jarvis, by taking nightly possessions as well as, or instead of, the usual weekend takeovers. To this end, Jarvis is pioneering dynamic track stabilisers and high-speed track laying machines.

'With a production line approach we can achieve in one night work that would take a weekend conventionally,' says Clarke. 'And we can repeat this performance at least five times a week.'

David Hayward

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