Wandering around the site of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link you could be forgiven for thinking it was a motorway construction job. After all, it looks just like one - with a flat swathe of cleared land disappearing in a straight line over the horizon. Construction of the first new rail line in many, many decades is a difficult concept to get used to.
Of course, the whole CTRL is not being built quite yet. Just Section 1, the first 74km from the Channel Tunnel portal at Cheriton through to a new connection into the existing route to Waterloo just south of Ebbsfleet. Section 2, the tricky 39km under London into St Pancras, must wait until 2001 or until the necessary £2.5bn is found.
So far, five of the six main civils packages on Section 1 have been let. Three are making rapid progress on site with the remainder due to kick off imminently. In total, £1.7bn will be spent on 25Mm3 of earthmoving to create the new high-speed track, 177 new bridges (including a new viaduct over the River Medway), a 3km tunnel beneath the North Downs and a new station at Ashford.
Contract 330 East Thames (Medway Valley to Waterloo Connection) is the most westerly job on Section 1 and involves constructing 15.8km of new railway. The main civils work is costing £63M but other service diversions and associated contracts take the final figure to around £80M.
'It is not a technically difficult job, but the logistics are quite tricky,' admits 330 contract manager Terry Rawnsley of CTRL designer Rail Link Engineering. Rawnsley is an Arup's man and has just come from building a privately financed motorway in Hungary. 'This is very much like a motorway job without the pavement,' he says.
Most of the route follows the line of the A2 corridor through farm and woodland. The connection to the main line to Waterloo - known as Fawkham Junction - is reached via an existing, but now disused, railway alignment which will be widened to accept the new track.
Joint-venture contractor Alfred McAlpine-Amec has been on site since September and is now taking advantage of the unusually dry winter to start earthworks early. This work was not expected to start until after Easter.
But smooth progress on the job is not just down to the weather, says Rawnsley. Partnering, he explains, has created an atmosphere where everyone on site simply wants to get on with building the railway rather than debating the contract.
'It could of course, still be a honeymoon period,' accepts Rawnsley. 'At the moment if we have a disagreement someone will say 'hey, we're not meant to argue - we're partnering'.'
Rawnsley is slightly uncomfortable when describing the 'partnering sessions' organised by RLE. 'It's all about 'bonding' but by the time we had the first session we all felt we were partnering already.' Such sessions have been repeated for groups across the project, from managers down to site engineers. Rawnsely adds that he does not feel there is currently anyone on site without the right attitude. 'I hope it carries on and stands the test of time,' he adds.
But he believes that generating enthusiasm for such single team working is most important at the workface. Taking the message down the chain through a series of workshops to the guys on site will now be the priority.
Enthusing the workforce is also vital because there is much work to do. The two and a half year contract 330 will see a massive muckshift, a large proportion of which will be to form environmental mitigation bunds to keep the new railway out of sight. RLE is also planting thousands of trees to replace the not insignificant numbers that have been felled to make way for the railway. A vast amount of ancient woodland - not the mature trees but the topsoil, seedbank and rootballs - has also been translocated to recreate the original habitats.
Construction of the most complex of the new bridges is just about to start and will see the A2/M2 grade separated junction completely rebuilt. A path being created for the CTRL will also to accommodate the planned M2 widening which starts later in the year. Steel beams for the new bridge will be lifted into place in July. A six phase traffic management system will keep traffic flowing all around the site on both the M2, A2 and the busy A228.
Also ongoing at contract 330 is a particularly awkward job to set up a diversion for a live, oil-filled 33kV electricity cable owned by Railtrack. This is proving difficult, as Railtrack will not allow any work within 2m of the delicate cable. Progress is made using mainly hand tools and so is relatively slow.
What is driving the project forward and away from conflict, says Rawnsley, is the bespoke, target cost New Engineering Contract being used. At the start of the job a target cost was agreed for every operation. But as soon as work started, every pound that is actually spent by the contractor is paid back as an actual cost. Sophisticated auditing ensures the contractor does not hang on to monies due to subcontractors.
Although 330 contractor Alfred McAlpine-Amec is paid a flat fee throughout construction, its main income will be at the end of the contract. Working together with RLE and client Union Railways (South), its goal is to finish early and reduce the final cost of the job to below the target. Any savings made will then be shared between the parties - hopefully giving the contractor a decent margin on the work.
'Quality is maintained by self-certification - the contractor builds and checks his own work,' explains Rawnsley. 'But RLE will be standing over his shoulder to make sure he is carrying out his responsibilities.'
He adds that to encourage openness on the contract, a system has been introduced to encourage mistakes to be admitted. If the contractor makes a error, spots it and owns up before RLE becomes aware, the cost of repairs will be reimbursed. If not, the cost of putting things right are at the contractor's own expense.
RLE's field engineering team may have the task of peering over the contractor's shoulder but it does not supervise or inspect. The role is one of 'surveillance'.
Senior construction engineer Jon Walker heads up the surveillance team for the western end of the contract. RLE has 15 of its 25 contract 330 staff, all chartered engineers, working in the field 'helping' the contractor to keep the job on track. He says the system is working well but accepts that there are some quite major cultural battles to overcome.
'There is still a slight feeling that we are spying,' says Walker. 'But we always work with the contractor. It's monitoring not supervision - we can give advice but the main thing is that we are working as a team.'
Walker joined RLE from Bechtel and says that, for him, working in partnership is nothing new. But he points out that partnering has got to be more than just filling in paperwork. His approach basically comes down to getting the job working in a sensible and safe way and he insists his team is not trying to catch anyone out.
Walker and Rawnsley have similar outlooks. Both are seconded to the project from home companies and expect, if they choose, to return to these firms when the job is finished.
Unlike other project client organisations in the past, set up specifically for one job, the majority of staff at RLE do not have short term contracts. There should, in theory at least, be more commitment to the project and fewer people looking around for their next career move after a year. Getting the job done is the important part.
By adopting this approach, and of course with continued good weather, it is hoped that the contract will finish well before the system-wide trackwork and power contracts start to move in. And this will be achieved, if the soon-to-be-published contract charter is correct, 'at 90% of the target cost'.
'It is possible but if something major crops up the target could still go out of the window,' says Rawnsley cautiously.