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Sharjah - the right brigade

Rail Skill shortages

A shortage of experienced UK overhead line allocation design engineers has not been allowed to delay the West Coast Main Line modernisation. Steve Turner went to the Arabian Gulf to see how the problem is being overcome.

Thousands of miles from the bustle of the West Coast Main Line works, in a third floor office overlooking the Khalid lagoon in Sharjah, work essential to the British project is well under way.

Twenty three Indian engineers and 36 CAD draftsmen are busily producing designs that will form an integral part of the upgrade of Europe's busiest rail line.

Located in one of the United Arab Emirates, the Sharjah office is part of the WS Atkins/ Balfour Beatty Alliance selected by Railtrack to carry out the design work for the whole length of the contract.

Work at Sharjah is being done in conjunction with the Balfour Beatty design office in Kirkby, and WS Atkins' office in Derby.

The Kirkby office has been responsible for overhead line design and build works in Taiwan, Brazil and South Africa, while the Derby site is the old British Rail design office.

Together the two are a powerful resource, but still not enough for the massive West Coast Main Line (WCML) project.

Replacement of overhead equipment on the WCML is vital to the overall scheme to increase speed capacity and reliability. All the equipment south of Weaver junction near Crewe in Cheshire has been in operation since 1961, and although equipment north of Weaver was renewed in the 1970's, it still needs replacing.

A lack of experienced design engineers in the UK led the team to look abroad. In the UK personnel have been recruited from Australia and India. But still it was obvious that some design work would have to go abroad.

Skill shortages are not confined to the UK, however, and having first looked at China, Australia and South Africa, the Alliance decided that Sharjah was the best location for a backup design office.

Every engineer in the office has been supplied by the Railway of India Technical Engineering Services, the overseas consultancy arm of Indian State Railways. All are fully qualified engineers, and experienced overhead line allocation designers.

As Phil Parker, acting manager of the Sharjah office, explains: 'India's rail system is very similar to that in the UK, having being developed by the British in the old days, and this familiarity helps a lot.'

With today's technology, the fact that the designs are being undertaken half way across the world is not a problem, and the office is linked in to the Alliance's IT network.

Survey information vital to the design is sent electronically from the UK. Also available to the designers are the original drawings from when the line was first electrified, as well as electronic photographs of individual structures and a record of past remedial works.

Engineers assess the information and decide on the changes required. Design work usually involves changing the overhead line support arrangements and tensioning of the wire.

The speed of the line is increasing to 200km/h by 2002, and 225km/h by 2005, so the arrangement must keep the wire within supporting pantograph limits.

Wind speeds along the line also have to be taken into account, with windier conditions creating their own design problems. To minimise the risk of the pantograph simply blowing off the line, wind deflections must be kept within limits - meaning extra masts are needed in exposed areas.

Once completed, layouts are sent back to the UK, where an Alliance board checks the design and makes comments which can lead to changes. Construction drawings and details are then produced.

Work started in Sharjah in April and the team is now ahead of schedule. Design is due to be completed next March, but it seems inconceivable that a resource as valuable as the Sharjah team will be allowed to fade away.

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