Laing O’Rourke wants to become a major player in the UK rail sector and believes it can bring new ideas to the industry.
These days, it is not unusual to see Laing O’Rourke’s name on the hoardings at station construction and redevelopment sites. However, according to the company’s infrastructure director Arith Liyanage, that name may soon become familiar elsewhere on the rail network as well.
“In the rail space we’ve been focusing on station development,” he says. “What we’ve been working on over the last couple of years is to expand our expertise in stations and construction, and also looking at the opportunities in rail systems.
“I see no reason why we shouldn’t be delivering track, electrification, power and signalling.”
Off-site manufacturing translates really well to rail. It creates something engineered that can then be dropped into place without disruption
The company’s credentials in major station construction cannot be doubted, especially in London. It was involved in both the St Pancras and Farringdon Thameslink stations and is currently working on three Crossrail stations - Liverpool Street, Tottenham Court Road and Custom House - as well as upgrading Bond Street station for London Underground.
The firm also worked for Canary Wharf Contractors building the platforms and box for Canary Wharf’s new Crossrail station.
Liyanage says the obvious next step for Laing O’Rourke is to expand into the railway network side of the industry, something that is not as big a leap as might be imagined by those who only know the company for its buildings expertise.
In 2006, Laing O’Rourke bought Australian contracting business Barclay Mowlem from Carillion, and with it some major rail projects in the region.
“Barclay Mowlem has a wide scope of activities, including heavy rail engineering, such as track and electrification,” explains Liyanage.
“A lot of the expertise in the Australian market comes from expat Brits, and the rail specifications there are very similar to the UK’s, so we can easily bring people back to work in the UK.”
Liyanage himself was managing director of Carillion’s rail business in the UK for three years before joining Laing O’Rourke in 2011, so knows how the industry here works. But his approach is not to try to turn Laing O’Rourke into a traditional rail contractor; he wants to bring the firm’s strengths from the construction business into the rail sector - strengths like off site manufacture and directly employed operatives.
“What makes us unique is that we have invested heavily in off site manufacture,” says Liyanage, describing the firm’s manufacturing facility at Steetley in the East Midlands as “like an automotive factory manufacturing construction”.
Here the company has made platforms for Canary Wharf station, and built the entire structure of Custom House station before transporting it to site in east London.
“We have traditionally done it [off site manufacture] in the building industry because there has been a shortage of labour, and you get a drop off in quality as a result of that shortage,” explains Liyanage.
“But it translates really well to the railway in terms of creating something engineered that is manufactured off site, and can then be dropped into place overnight without disrupting the operational railway.”
Another area of investment is what the company calls “digital engineering” - a term it thinks is more appropriate than “building information modelling” (BIM).
“Effectively we come up with design solutions in the digital environment and pass them on to the manufacturing facility for them to deliver,” says Liyanage, adding that the rail sector has traditionally had a lot of waste in its processes, often resulting from reworking on site when components do not fit exactly, or are difficult to install.
“In electrification, for example, there are huge coordination and clash issues,” he says. “That is perfect for digital modelling.”
Liyanage says that Laing O’Rourke’s 5,000-strong directly employed labour force, together with its pool of specialist equipment, can also play a part in making the UK rail industry more efficient.
He says that some of the accidents that have happened in the rail industry can, in part, be blamed on the desegregation of labour, with too much distance between the people commissioning the work and those actually carrying it out on the ground.
Directly employed operatives, he says, give the company the chance to drive up control quality, enabling teams to become “engineering professionals on site - rather than old fashioned builders”.
Traditionally in the UK, rail has been seen as a specialist discipline, distinct and different from other sectors of the construction industry. But Liyanage says there is much that can be leant from other types of construction, and there should be more crossover between sectors - be it in the way projects are procured and managed or the expertise of the operatives on the ground.
“A railway is a system,” explains Liyanage. “You have structures; you have an operational railway; you have control systems in the form of signals, etcetera. In that sense, it’s very similar to commissioning a building with all its different disciplines, and there are a lot of crossovers between the two sectors.
“Where we can bring some benefit is that the building sector is largely private sector driven, so there is a greater emphasis on delivery - making it faster, better, and smarter,” he adds. “Obviously we do need to be mindful that there is an operational railway to run, and the severity of what can go wrong is greater, but I do think that bringing the right mindset to the railway is important.”
One reason why Liyanage believes new thinking is needed in the rail sector is that there are not enough people in the industry to carry on doing things the way they have been done for the last 15 years.
“With the amount of work in [Network Rail’s next spending period] Control Period 5, as well as Crossrail and possibly Crossrail 2, there is going to be more spend than the major tier one contractors have the capacity to deliver,” he says.
Add in what Liyanage calls “the McNulty efficiency factor” - a reference to the 2011 report by Sir Roy McNulty that called for a 20% to 30% efficiency improvement in the rail industry - and, he says, “the only way you can deliver is to increase the supply market and do something different through innovation”.
“Our company culture is very much about innovation, and we do a lot of collaboration,” Liyanage adds. “We would like to see ourselves as a potential new tier one contractor to complement the existing contractors in the sector.”
Our company culture is very much about innovation, and we do a lot of collaboration
One way to make the industry more efficient, he says, is to bring in more alliancing and collaboration. Since Laing O’Rourke entered the Australian rail market, it has seen a real shift from traditional contracting to collaboration and alliancing, and Liyanage believes this could bring significant efficiency, cost and quality improvements to the UK rail sector.
It is an attitude that is gaining traction with Network Rail, as evidenced by the formation last year of the UK rail sector’s first “pure construction alliance” to deliver the £250M Stafford Area Improvement Programme on the West Coast Main Line. Laing O’Rourke is a member of that alliance, along with Network Rail, Atkins and Volker Rail.
The alliance - based on a model from Australia - was put together to remodel and re-signal the line’s complex layout through Stafford and build a new flyover to separate commuter, freight and inter-city services. All four parties in the alliance will share the benefits and the risks on the project, working in an integrated “one team” structure.
When the alliance was announced last year, Network Rail infrastructure projects managing director Simon Kirby described this type of collaborative approach as “the natural way forward for contracting within Network Rail and indeed the wider rail industry”.
“By adopting a common focus and shared approach with our industry partners, this will ultimately help to drive down costs, reduce risk and lead to the more efficient and timely delivery of major projects such as Stafford,” he added.
Liyanage says that alliancing is ideal for the rail sector because of the number of stakeholders involved.
“That’s very different from a construction project,” he says. “In a construction project you can define the needs and requirements and turn that into discrete pieces of work to be done in discrete areas - then you go out and pass the risk onto a contractor who can manage all the interfaces.
“You can’t do that on operational rail projects. Everything you do has an impact on the operational railway,” he adds, explaining that the best way to come to an efficient solution is for the network operator and all the appropriate stakeholders to be part of the team developing the solution, in an alliance.
I accept that, outside of stations and civil engineering, we’re seen as a new player; but we’re ready to show what we can do
The imperative for the rail industry to change is there, Liyanage believes, as the number of major construction schemes coming up in the UK alone could leave the rail sector competing for scarce resources.
“I have certainly detected in the last two years that Network Rail and, to some extent London Underground, see themselves as part of the wider infrastructure sector, and understand that the infrastructure sector in the UK has lots of major projects that will suck in resources,” he says, citing the forthcoming Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, Crossrail and Thames Tideway tunnel as examples, as well as a reinvigorated roads building programme.
“They have accepted that, as an industry, we do need to work together in a much more coordinated way.”
Liyanage is keen to break down some of the barriers that have prevented operatives from moving between rail jobs and building or civils work, believing that there is no reason his firm’s directly employed workforce should not develop the skills to work throughout the infrastructure sector.
“We have plans to up-skill and cross-skill our guys to work in the rail sector,” he says. “If we can make it work, we’d like to bring operatives across from construction that are multi-skilled. I know that’s easier said than done, but it would be great to have operatives who can move across from one to another.”
With Network Rail’s next five year spending period about to begin, and other major rail projects under way throughout the UK, Liyanage feels Laing O’Rourke is absolutely ready to win its share of the work on offer. “I accept that, outside of stations and civil engineering, we’re seen as a new player; but we’re ready to show what we can do,” he says.
Manchester metrolink: Extending the city’s tram system
Laing O’Rourke has been consolidating its place on the UK rail industry map during a seven year programme to build the third phase of the Manchester Metrolink light rail system.
The company is one of three firms in the MPT joint venture that has carried out £900M of work since being appointed by Transport for Greater Manchester back in 2007, along with Volker Rail and Thalys.
Over that period the project grew considerably, until it became third only to the Olympics and Crossrail in scale, with construction spend reaching a peak of £1M every two days. In all, the network has been extended by the addition of 60km of new track and 55 new tram stops.
MPT says the project has included excavating around 600,000m3, 97% of which has been recycled and not sent to landfill; over 8,000t of reinforcement has been fixed; and 164,000m3 of concrete placed to construct the new track slabs and structures.
The extension includes 150 new or existing structures, including two new 580t bridges over the M60 and M56 motorways. Over 100 existing railway structures have been refurbished, renewed or replaced, and new underpasses have been constructed to route the Metrolink under major local highways, including the Manchester Inner Relief Road and Ringway Road outside the airport. A new multi-span viaduct has been constructed to carry the Metrolink across the Mersey Valley.
One of the major challenges posed by the project was to see how tram stops could be built more safely and economically. Laing O’Rourke’s off site manufacturing facility provided the answer, with the factory used to construct 2,900 precast modular concrete units that were taken to site and assembled.