We lost thousands of yards of renewal and it has hurt, ' says Railtrack head of line of route schemes, Mark Thurston, talking about progress on the West Coast Route Modernistion (WCRM) after a winter of extensive flooding diverted resources to deal with post Hatfield repairs across the network.
'But the end date for the project is not going to change, ' he insists.
Restructuring of the project team, a new integrated approach and the success of Jarvis's track laying machine have all helped put Europe's biggest rail construction project back on track.
The WCRM is being carried out in two phases. Phase one, due for completion in June 2002, will allow trains to travel up to 200km/h. By May 2005, at the end of the second phase, it is hoped Virgin's new fleet of tilting trains will be running at up to 225km/h.
But achieving these targets while keeping Europe's busiest route fully operational has proved extremely challenging, and the recent setbacks have not helped.
Hundreds of speed limits imposed on the length of the West Coast Main Line, (WCML) at sites where there were signs of gauge corner cracking, have caused chaos with possession timetables and have diverted valuable resources.
One of the biggest challenges on WCRM has been to get the track and overhead line programmes to work together, and Thurston admits they were on a 'huge collision course'.
Thurston was bought in by general manager Tony Fletcher to head a new 'line of route approach'. This brings the track relaying programme and overhead line renewal under the same umbrella, enabling better co-ordination of available resources and allowing the two jobs to be carried out side by side.
Engineering design director Ian Schofield explains: 'The positioning of the overhead line is dependent on the track position. In some places on the WCRM the overhead line is going up before the track is relain, so it is imperative the new track is positioned precisely in relation to the new overhead line.'
Track and overhead line (OHL) teams are now using the same survey information. And from this Mott Macdonald is producing through-alignment design information ahead of the OHL - so everybody is working from the same data.
Detailed design work is now 35 weeks ahead of actual construction work, compared with just eight weeks a year ago, and the surveys, essential for the design engineers, will be completed by next month.
Trial holes have been sunk along the 1M. m of track that needs re-laying, but ground probing radar (GPR) has reduced the number of boreholes required.
This is the first time that GPR has been used on the UK rail network, and the hand held equipment gives a quick and accurate picture of the state of ballast and the ballast/formation interface.
A number of major consultants are involved in the complicated design programme, and like the rest of the industry are experiencing problems finding qualified staff.
Thurston explains that it is not a shortage of site labour that is the problem, but skilled technical staff. A lot of the track design is being done at consultants' offices in India.
The track laying machine brought in by Jarvis (NCE 14 September 2000), is exceeding expectations. Earlier this month it managed to re-lay nearly 2.2km in a single 29-hour weekend possession. In an eight hour possession the following week the machine broke records by successfully laying 330m of track, only to beat this figure on two successive nights with 512m and then an incredible 564m.
This high productivity rate has been credited to a change in the organisation of the team. When the high output team, as it is known, first started working on the network it was treated as a separate entity, which a spokesman admits led to bad planning and poor integration with the rest of the West Coast track laying teams.
The situation was reviewed and the high output team fully integrated, allowing better coordination of resources and simplification of planning, resulting in increased output.
In the light of the impact of gauge corner cracking Railtrack is seriously considering another track laying train, or a 'second squadron' as Thurston describes it, similar to the one operated by Jarvis.
But Thurston admits that despite the desire to bring in a second machine, the issue is 'the business case'. To have a track laying machine standing idle is extremely expensive and balancing the massive outlay against increased output poses a huge dilemma for Railtrack.
There are also logistical problems involved in operating a second squadron. Keeping the train supplied with the thousands of sleepers it requires, plus track, clips and mountains of ballast, and then ensuring all the materials are in place where and when the train is to start work, is a massive operation.
American programme managers have helped boost the project. Since Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) joined as programme manager in 1999, it has bought resources and skill sets that the job was lacking, Thurston says.
PB's systems implementation approach and integrated scheduling are further tools Thurston claims have helped organise the contract more efficiently.
But to get back on target, Thurston says Railtrack has had to work proactively with its suppliers. 'Anyone who thinks collaborative contracting is easy has never done it, ' he claims.
With the move toward alliancing type contracts, Thurston says the collaboration required between Railtrack and its contractors is central to the success of the programme. 'On a programme of this size and complexity we need their help and innovation to deal with the raft of issues that keep on emerging.'