It's D-Day 1944 and landing craft crammed with Allied soldiers approach the Normandy beaches. The arrival of the Americans has brought the beginning of the war's end, but victory is still a long way off. The soldiers eye each other pensively. Any second now the landing craft doors will open and the dash for the beach will begin. They can only guess at the horrors ahead.
Fifty four years later and it's D-Day once again. But this time the beach is in the UK and the battleground is the nation's railways. Britain's finest have struggled valiantly for years to improve an ageing railway system, but client Railtrack has decided they need reinforcements. Once again the Americans have responded to our calls for help. Only now the cavalry is coming in the form of the world's largest engineering companies.
Parsons Brinckerhoff, Bechtel and Fluor Daniel - in joint venture with Mott MacDonald - have been appointed as programme managers for Railtrack's major projects programme which includes the £2.2bn West Coast Main Line route modernisation, the £1bn East Coast Main Line upgrade and Railtrack's £3.2bn privatisation proposals for the London Underground sub-surface lines.
Each project involves upgrading a busy working railway by carrying out a frightening multitude of interfacing civil engineering, signalling and electrification projects. All the work must be carried out during night time and weekend possessions to minimise disruption to train services.
The Americans are well aware of the projects' technical complexity, but they might not be prepared for the baggage that comes with Britain's railways: the entrenched work attitudes, a client viewed by many suppliers as uncommunicative and unpredictable and the politically charged regulatory environment. 'They haven't any idea what they're getting into,' said one well connected British contracting chief.
Another senior British contractor with experience of working alongside US programme managers expands: 'The American firms will bring new ways of working to break the old British Rail attitudes. But people are set in their ways. Not just in Railtrack, but the contractors as well. I think it could work, but I doubt Railtrack will let go.'
Perhaps the most unenviable task has gone to Parsons. It has been charged with managing the WCML modernisation. The troubled project has stumbled through the past two years with little activity on the ground, but plenty of project restructuring.
Many are already questioning whether the June 2002 deadline to upgrade the line to take 200km/h trains is feasible. The even more complex phase two upgrade to take 225km/h tilting trains has to be delivered by mid 2005. If Railtrack fails to deliver, it faces heavy contractual penalties from train operator Virgin.
Railtrack says it has given WCML to Parsons because the firm's experience of managing 'complex operational railway interfaces' is particularly relevant. While this is true, the same also could be said of Parsons' predecessor Brown & Root which lost out during the latest round of project restructuring.
Parsons has begun by sending in a series of early action teams boasting a wealth of global programme management experience. Their job will be to work on areas identified as critical to the project's success, such as the planning and implementation of possessions.
Parsons director Jim Doebler explains: 'The key thing is maintaining service. So we have to find out how to do both the planning and the implementation better than they have been done so far. The early action teams are not permanent. They will take a quick assessment, ask questions and see how things compare with their experience.'
The Parsons approach is mirrored by that of Fluor Daniel on the ECML. Fluor Daniel head of programme management Jim Devine says that his first task is to set up an asset database documenting the condition of the existing route.
'We have learned that few rail owners take care of their assets,' explains Devine. 'So the first task is to create an asset management system that is updated when work is carried out. This allows us to carry out whole life costing and prevents duplicated effort.'
At the same time Fluor will begin to plan upgrades.
'The project is a lot further on than we realised,' says Devine. 'A lot of excellent work has already been carried out identifying what needs to be done.'
Fluor Daniel Infrastructure vice president David Gedney adds: 'Teams of 15 are looking at the proposed programme and the timetable of work. They will do computer simulations of different improvement scenarios to assess the impact on the public.'
Gedney expects the advance teams to report by the end of October. By this time Fluor's main team of 40 should be installed in the Railtrack ECML offices in York. Around 40% of these will come from Mott MacDonald.
'The next step will be to become knowledgeable about the processes, such as the planning of possessions, to see how they can be improved,' says Devine.
However, he believes the most important thing Fluor will bring to the project is the ability to say no.
'The railways are a very small environment where everybody knows everybody else,' he says. 'Refusing a request to carry out work can hurt feelings. But my job means I must have no fear of hurting feelings, so it will be easier for me to say no.'
Bechtel has been signed up by Railtrack to work on its negotiations with Government over the public private partnership for London Underground's sub-surface lines.
It has been in the UK for nearly 50 years and its executives have developed a reputation as hard nosed trouble shooters. True to the company's tradition of playing its cards close to its chest, it was unwilling to comment on its work for Railtrack.