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South Devon Link: Obstacle course

Long term client commitment and opportunistic project management have combined to deliver the South Devon Link road.

More than 50 years after it was first mooted and almost 20 years after it was canned by the government, construction of the A380 South Devon Link is now well underway. Indeed, the project is racing along, having taken advantage of last winter’s unexpected outage of the Great Western Main Line through Dawlish to tackle a high-risk railway crossing.

It is a change in fortunes for a project and a project team that has spent decades arguing the case for a relatively modest 5.5km long bypass of the south Devon village of Kingskerswell.

The reason for the scheme is pretty clear - more than 35,000 vehicles a day squeeze along the A380 through Kingskerswell with 15,000 more using rural back roads as rat runs. The congestion is chronic.

“This is the only place in the country where you can use traffic as an excuse for being late for court,” notes Heart of the South West Local Transport Board chair Liz Waugh.

South Devon Link

Railway crossing: The link road crosses a tunnelised section of railway

But there is far more to it than just improving journey times; more even than the obvious quality of life improvements offered for the people of Kingskerswell. Torbay is an economically deprived area and the Kingskerswell bottleneck is effectively isolating it and its businesses from the rest of the UK. And it is on this that promoting authorities have fought hard.

“Torbay has massive areas of deprivation and unemployment. This project is about creating 9,500 jobs,” states Torbay Council client project officer Patrick Carney. “Ok, it’s a civil engineering project.

But you have got to remember why we are doing it. Any economic growth here is restricted by the access.”

But getting this far has taken a huge effort, and that effort has come almost entirely from Torbay Council and Devon County Council.

Numerous hoops have had to be jumped through (see box), and real financial risk was taken on.

“From 2000 onwards Devon and Torbay were committing serious money without any government commitment,” explains Devon County Council client project officer Robert Richards. “I wonder if that could happen again,” he says, referencing the very challenging budgets that local authorities now have to work within.

“From 2000 onwards Devon and Torbay were committing serious money without any government commitment”

Robert Richards, Devon County Council

Overall, the project is costing £109M, with the Department for Transport (DfT) putting up £76.4M, a further £2.6M coming from its Pinch Point funding. Another £500,000 contribution has come from Teignbridge District Council. The rest is being shared equally between Torbay and Devon - and a sizeable chuck of that was spent long before the DfT came on board.

“Our half of the £25M was a big gamble for us. But to be shovel ready was a big thing for us,” says Carney. “We are building it here and now because people stuck by it when nothing was happening.”

Plenty is happening now, and everyone is much more comfortable knowing that all the major risk elements are complete.

“A huge piece was de-risking the scheme by taking advantage of closure of Dawlish rail line,” says Devon County Council project manager Paul Couttie.

“All parties got together and formulated a plan to get in the culvert. It was a level of collaboration that was fairly unique.”

Who’s who

Client: Devon County Council and Torbay Council
Design & Build contractor: Galliford Try/SIAC
Contractor’s designer: Ramboll
Client’s consultant: Parsons Brinckerhoff
Client’s agent: NPS Group
Client’s environmental consultant: SLR
Clients geotechnical consultant: Frederick Sherrell Limited
Contractor’s environmental consultant: AAE

Plenty of other civils challenges exist. The 7km total length of dual carriageway comprises 5.5km for the main bypass plus some connections either end and very little is at grade. As a result, there is a hefty, 140m long flyover, plus a 270m long tunnel, eight other bridges, 4km of retaining wall and 10 major culverts.

In total 1.6Mt of earth willbe shifted and 38,000m3 of concrete poured. And the deadline for completion is the end of this year. So with most structures still to complete and the road just emerging from formation level, there is plenty to do.

“The road formation is now largely complete but there is still a lot to do,” acknowledges Couttie. “But things are taking shape.”

The most striking part of the project - the two span, 140m long flyover crossing the Penn Inn Roundabout - is one thing that is elegantly taking shape. Structurally complete, the main spans comprise six, 70m long steel beams, installed as 70t braced pairs using a 750t crane.

South Devon Link

Striking: The 140m long Penn Inn roundabout flyover

It is an elegant structure. But it is the far more modest triple cell culvert at Keybury not more than a stone’s throw from the flyover that gets the engineering plaudits.

That’s because this 140m long culvert that was rapidly installed in the unexpected risk-reduced window opened up by the storm damage to the Great Western Railway near Dawlish in January last year.

“We had the mainline closed for two days, the weather was atrocious, we were working in flood plain, and the site was under 1m of water when we started”

Paul Couttie, Devon County Council

“It was an audacious idea,” notes Richards, “and pretty unprecedented. It was a huge piece of contracting.” So much so, he wonders whether anything similar will ever be seen again.

Chris Hastings, project director for design and build contracting JV Galliford Try/SIAC explains the thinking: “We were sat in a meeting one day after Dawlish and said, ‘what if while the whole railway is disrupted we do this work now to minimise disruption later?’ A lot of the temporary works were already designed; a lot of the permanent works were designed. So it quickly grew from a ‘what if?’ to a ‘why not?’ to a let’s do it’.”

South Devon Link

Culvert: Vital time saving innovation

There was one small problem, though - the precast concrete culvert units had not yet been made. “Getting hold of the 57 culvert units we needed was a challenge,” notes Richards.

“We wouldn’t have had time to manufacture the units,” agrees Hastings.

But good fortune was on South Devon’s side. “Fortunately there was another job, somewhere else in the country, that was flooded out,” explains Hastings. “So we took its culvert.”

The works were remodelled to take account of the new units to the Environment Agency’s satisfaction and Network Rail gave its blessing.

The whole thing - from idea to completion - took just four weeks.

“We just got to the position where people couldn’t say no,” says Richards.

South Devon Link

Flyover: Cuts out roundabout

“So while the Orange Army was up at Dawlish we parked a 750t crane on the railway line and quietly got on with things,” says Hastings.

“Quietly getting on with things” in this case meaning the lifting, removal and subsequent replacement of a 60m stretch of track and ballast, the removal of 10,000t of earth from beneath and adjacent the railway track, and the installation of 57, 27t culvert units - all in 155 hours.

And elsewhere? The longest structure on the job is the Aller Railway Tunnel; here the new dual carriageway was to run over the railway line at an oblique angle. So a 270m long tunnel was formed using 110 precast concrete beams, dropped into place 11 per night during 10 consecutive weekend possessions.

There was other rail work too - notably in Christmas 2013 when one bridge and three culverts were installed in four days and nights with 5,500 man hours worked by the 150-plus staff. It was the success of that work that, says Couttie, made Network Rail willing to allow the project team to carry out its audacious Dawlish plan.

“That work over Christmas 2013 probably helped get Network Rail to buy in. We had the mainline closed for two days, the weather was atrocious, we were working in a flood plain, and the site was under 1m of water when we started. Yet we delivered and it was that that gave Network Rail confidence to buy in to our plans at Keyberry.”

Long route to construction

Devon County Council client project officer Robert Richards explains how funding for the South Devon Link was eventually unlocked.

The scheme was first proposed in 1951. Up to the mid-1990s Devon County Council was actively pursuing a three lane dual carriageway with a team of 13 taking the design forward and very close to publishing orders.

At this time Devon County Council was acting as agents for the Department for Transport. A deal had been struck; Devon was to complete the dualling of the A380 between Exeter and NewtonAbbot and the DfT would then fund the bypass and on completion trunk the entire route to Torbay.

Then, in 1996, just before the change of government and in a time when road building was probably at its least popular following Twyford Down and the Newbury Bypass protests, the whole trunk road programme was put on hold pending a full review.

The team working on the project was given a week to down tools and archive the work to date. The project was dead in the water.

But Devon and Torbay began to join forces to look at keeping the project alive. A meeting was held with then [Labour] junior minister for transport Glenda Jackson who suggested investigating PFI as a funding solution and that the project team go back to square one to prove the case. So the two authorities regrouped and considered the political agenda of the day and commissioned -and funded - a full corridor study in 1999.

South Devon Link

On site: The project was first conceived in the 1950s

The brief was broad and did not anticipate likely solutions. The work was built on new traffic data including new bus, cycle and pedestrian counts. The conclusion was that do nothing was unacceptable. The do-something options all included a dual two lane bypass.

The recommendations from the report fed in to outline design which then led to a public consultation in 2002. The route proposed then is very similar to what is being constructed now; all that has changed is a tweak to Aller Cross roundabout to offer improved access for Kingskerswell residents.

It’s worth noting that this consultation included a package of measures for the whole corridor such as improved cycle facilities on the A380 and improvements to Shaldon Road from Penn Inn.

A further economic study was carried out following the consultation to confirm that economic benefits for the area would be realised. There was concern that, as well it being a road to get tourists in to Torbay, it also served as a road to get goods and products out.

Alongside this, and still with no indication of funding from central government, the local regions sought to influence work programmes through the Government Office South West and South West Regional Assembly. This led to the scheme being included in the South West Regional Transport Plan in 2005.

Detailed design work was also being progressed, leading to a planning application which was approved in 2005.

Award of planning permission strengthened the case for a major scheme bid to the DfT. A huge amount of work was put into the major scheme bid; the result of which was the suggestion from DfT that further traffic modelling was required before the project could be considered for Programme Entry - the first stage of the DfT’s funding process.

South Devon Link

Taking shape: New junction

Now, to this stage Devon and Torbay councils had committed in the region of £4M with no indication of funding. But, rather than be blown off course, the project team continued to move forward and looked at options to shortcut the process to maintain programme.

As such, the Compulsory Purchase and Side Road Orders were published in 2009. This led to a full public inquiry.

This in itself was an issue - after publishing the orders, the DfT said that it could not now award Programme Entry as it may be prejudicial to the inquiry.

Regardless, the procurement process was started - tenders were invited based on an NEC3 design and build contract.

The aim was to be in a position to jump straight to Full Approval - skipping the DfT’s Programme Entry and Conditional Approval stages. This bid was submitted in March 2010.

In May 2010 another new government was formed.

The immediate post-Election Comprehensive Spending Review led to a major cut back of the DfT’s roads programme. For the South Devon Link this meant being placed in the “pre-qualification pool”- actually one step back from Programme Entry.

But by December 2010 the DfT was looking for projects that could kick start the economy and was seeking submissions from project teams for schemes that could demonstrate value for money, value engineering (the infamous “more for less” mantra) and had a potential for increased contributions locally.

The South Devon Link team complied and the scheme moved into the Development Pool in February 2011.

At this stage it was in competition with 45 schemes with a combined value of £950M, all looking for a share of a £630M pot.

The best and final bid was submitted in September 2011 and addressed the questions of value for money, contributions and value engineering.

The overall cost of the works was reduced by £12M through value engineering, and contributions were increased by £22M. In addition the preparation costs were written off.

It was a winning move. The funding decision was announced in December 2011 with the positive inspectors report from the 2009 Inquiry received the next day.

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