A year ago Metronet was rarely out of the news. First it had a very public spat with London Underground over costs. London Underground said Metronet had overspent while upgrading two-thirds of the London Underground network. Metronet said London Underground had requested more work, and argued that it should pay for these overruns.
The disagreement was not petty. It involved £1bn spread across each of Metronet’s two companies – Metronet BCV, which is responsible for upgrading the Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines, and Metronet SSL, which upgrades the Circle, District, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines.
Metronet ran out of money, and went into PPP administration in July 2007. It emerged from administration in May this year, swallowed by Transport for London (TfL) – a victory for Ken Livingstone just before he left office.
Before it went into administration, Metronet used its in-house contractor, Trans4m, to undertake civil engineering and other work. Trans4m was staffed by people on secondment from four of Metronet’s five shareholders: Atkins, Balfour Beatty, EdF and Thames Water. Its fifth shareholder Bombardier had separate contracts for rolling stock.
"The civils unit was part of Trans4m, and moved into Metronet under administration," says Metronet head of civils David Sockett.
The secondment of staff has continued now that it is out of administration, although Trans4m has been dissolved, by the administrators and staff are now working directly for Metronet.
Inside Trans4m, "There was uncertainty, because people were unsure how the process would affect them," says Sockett.
"Some chose to leave, but the vast majority decided to stay." The decision to dissolve Trans4m did trigger a hiatus in civils work. "We had to rewrite secondment agreements, because the company people worked for no longer existed," he adds.
Now, the stations programme which has dominated the upgrade work so far is being put on the back-burner so Metronet can focus on its civils and track work – work that had progressed well before administration.
"Mainly Balfour Beatty and Atkins staff transferred over [to Metronet], and Atkins still provides a big chunk of our staff here," says Sockett.
Around 110 Atkins staff work in the Metronet civils department, with another 50 or so in the rest of the business.
Metronet also had to change to a new project management database. This process took four months and work was reduced to the minimum needed to keep trains running safely while the lengthy process of transferring the company took place.
Metronet’s civils business is now divided into four work streams: bridges and structures; earth structures; deep tube tunnels; and drainage.
"Inspectors check the condition of the assets, and defects they identify are fed into our central database," says Sockett.
"They feed back faults found. Maintenance picks those up, prioritises the faults and draws up a work bank for the year."
The London Underground PPP contract is only five years into its 30-year duration, and a huge proportion of the work in these early years is concerned with assessment of the Tube’s assets. One hundred and forty engineers are employed just to gather information.
Unassessed assets are referred to as "grey", and have to be assessed to "ungrey" them, so they can be put into a priority list and improved. "Pressing jobs are given priority," says Sockett.
"At the same time we have assessments doing engineering reverse calculations to determine how well an asset can do its job. It is such a big asset base, there is a huge amount of work to do, just from the statutory requirements – tunnels, bridges, earth structures, drainage."
The asset base is undeniably old, and drains on the network have been found that date back to 1862. But even assets of this age are essential to the smooth running of the whole network – water accumulating on the track bed could short-out signalling equipment, bringing the system to a standstill.
Metronet’s civils operation is gearing up to complete more work than in the past, partly to compensate for the hiatus earlier in the year, and partly because the PPP contracts are structured to assume an increase in activity as the project progresses.
"The importance of the civils assets is absolutely paramount, and you ignore it at your peril," says Sockett.
"Coming out of administration, we are looking to do a large chunk of work, of 10-year programmes with London Underground."
While work did continue under PPP administration, Sockett worries that Metronet’s brand is insufficiently attractive to potential employees.
"We need engineers," he says. “We are running with about 10% fewer staff than we really need, which is manageable at the moment, but we will need around 100 more engineers in the coming 18 months. Secondees from Atkins will also eventually leave, to be replaced by new Metronet staff.
That the Metronet brand is not as attractive as it could be to potential employees is understandable. "We have been in administration – I can see why people would be put off by this, but the work is there and must continue,” he says. “The work will not end even after the PPP."
Ironically, Sockett says working conditions are more favourable under the highly unionised wing of TfL.
While the work will continue, the final structure of Metronet is undecided – NCE understands that TfL is waiting to see how it deals with absorbing Metronet first.
But whatever changes are made, Metronet will still need to get its work done, and will need engineers to do it. Sockett says the job is rewarding – you deal with day-to-day with live structures in a confined space. A recent project to upgrade the D70 bridge at Chiswick Park station is a case in point.
"It was incredibly complicated," he says. "The bridge was curved in three dimensions, it was canted and skewed. All the beams were straight, requiring an awful lot of bespoke shapings to make the top line work through. Innovation and lateral thinking is required."