The £410M contract to renew the overhead power lines is one of the biggest of the West Coast Route Modernisation (WCRM) project. It involves the design, supply and installation of an overhead line system that by 2005 will allow trains to travel along the West Coast Main Line (WCML) at up to 140mph.
Work covers more than 2,220km of track, including 6,000 new or replacement structures, 415 tunnel supports and 1,000km of new contact wire.
Railtrack awarded the contract, to the OLE & Distribution Alliance in November 1999. The alliance comprises Railtrack, Balfour Beatty Rail Projects, GTRM and WS Atkins Rail.
John Dunwoodie is the Alliance project director. He says that because of the size and complexity of the job and the risk involved, a conventional contract would have been 'almost impossible'.
He says alliancing has 'taken away the conflict', allowing the project to be 'resourced efficiently'.
The fact Railtrack has committed staff senior enough to 'mix with senior Railtrack staff in the zones', has also helped, Dunwoodie believes.
No renewal work has been done on the OLE system since 1984 and Dunwoodie says maintenance work has been 'patchy, ' making the contract much more difficult.
Skill shortages have proved to be a major problem, mainly because the industry has failed to replace staff who have retired.
As a result, the Alliance has set up two training schools for inexperienced staff.
The training schools have brought through 200 people, but a learning curve has to be built in and experienced supervisory staff aware of potential risks are also required.
The dangers involved in the contract are considerable. As well as being on a live railway, the project combines the risks of working with high voltage electrical equipment and highly tensioned metal cable.
A lot of the work is also carried out at night and in freezing winter temperatures, further increasing risks. It was the cold winter nights that made the team think a lot of the newly trained staff would drop out, but the fear was unfounded.
Even so, it was impossible to find enough staff from the UK and personnel have been recruited from countries such as Australia, India, South Africa, Germany and Sweden Allocation design was undertaken by engineers based in the United Arab Emirates, and Indian engineers employed by WS Atkins at its Sharjah office.
While the upgrade is being carried out, the WCML remains the country's busiest line.
Although a lot of preparatory work can be carried out round the clock, the bulk of it can only be performed under possessions.
It is essential, therefore, that the Alliance makes maximum use of its weekend and five-hour night-time possessions. To ensure this and the general success of the project, the Alliance has invested heavily in new plant. More than 40 road/rail vehicles were procured from Swiss manufacturer SRS and HTT of the UK to provide access platforms.
Added to this, two £3.3M wiring trains have been procured. The trains, 200m in length, arrive at the site under their own power, before splitting into five sections which independently take down and replace old contact wires.
There are 6,000 structural foundations to be constructed on the project, of which 5,000 are piled. To speed up the process, a £4.3M, 220m long piling train has been purchased as well as a train with a concrete batcher.
Even with all the investment in plant, efficient utilisation of possessions is essential and Dunwoodie explains that the Alliance is 'multi-tasking' in possessions.
It is relying on the co-operation of maintenance contractor GTRM to allow the Alliance to share its possessions.
'It is not always possible to foresee all the required possessions and book them in advance, ' says Dunwoodie, explaining that they are 'piggybacking' other possessions to speed up progress.
Railtrack head of electrification delivery Russell Adams represents the track operator within the Alliance. He agrees that the lack of possessions is the critical factor, especially as the route has to carry a large amount of freight at night. He believes 'consultation and compromise' with the train operators is the key.
He adds that the OLE team has called in the army to help deal with the 'logistical nightmare'.
About 100 supervisors from the WCRM project have signed up to a course entitled 'Be part of the team' at the Royal School of Military Engineering in Cheltenham.
Adams says that with the shortage of resources and possessions, the course aims to help managers do the 'right thing at the right time'.
So with military precision, it is hoped that by 2005 this enormously challenging contract will provide substantial increases in line speeds and capacity on one of Britain's most important rail routes.