Snaking its way across the Languedoc landscape in southern France the Nîmes-Montpellier bypass is an innovative concept for a new high speed rail line.
The 60km long Nîmes -Montpellier bypass is a first for France. It is a high speed railway designed to carry passenger and freight trains.
Now well into construction, by 2017 the project will be busy enhancing the attractiveness of high speed passenger travel to southern France and Spain, aiding trans-Continental freight services and, crucially, boosting regional rail services by freeing capacity on the existing network.
At its core, this additional high speed link, where trains will eventually travel at 300km/h, will reduce travel times between Paris and Montpellier by more than 20 minutes.
It will bring the 750km journey between the two cities to less than three hours.
But by reducing the use of the existing railway - and particularly by moving freight onto the new high speed link - the project will also improve the regularity and frequency of local trains in the Languedoc-Rousillon region.
In fact, national rail infrastructure operator and project promoter RFF has a contractual commitment to the regional government of Languedoc-Roussillon to increase regional passenger rail capacity by a minimum of 30%.
It is aiming for four regional trains per hour at peak-times, with services evenly spread out at 15 minute intervals. Current frequency is three per hour with little regularity -there could be two trains in 10 minutes then none for 40 minutes or more.
Funding the Nîmes-Montpellier line is a fairly conventional PPP deal for France.
Oc’via is responsible for funding, designing, building and maintaining the line over a period of 25 years.
But there are plenty of state subsidies to help Oc’via raise the capital needed for construction.
The construction phase is eating up €1.8bn (£1.2bn) in total - £1bn for actual construction and £160M for financing costs. Oc’via is actually only putting in £81M of its own capital, with £731M in form of bank loans and £413M in public subsidies from the Languedoc-Roussillon regional authority, the General Council of Gard, the Township Committee of Nîmes, the Township Committee of Montpellier and RFF.
Eighty per cent of the bank loans, provided by 11 commercial banks, will be taken over by the European Investment Bank and saving funds managed by Caisse des Dépôts on delivery of the railway link. This will be backed by RFF guarantee during the operating period.
Meanwhile Oc’Via will receive 20 years of lease payments, provided it meets performance goals set around line availability.
The bypass will comprise 80km of new line in total, 60km of which will be high speed line between Manduel, east of Nîmes and Lattes, west of Montpellier. There will also be 20km of connecting lines to the existing network. Two new stations are also being built: one for Montpellier in the Odysséum district and one for Nîmes at Manduel-Redessan.
Between the stations it is flat, open wine-growing country- no hills, no valleys, and no major towns.
In fact the biggest challenge is for the railway not to become an obstacle in itself. The line passes through flood plain and the biggest engineering challenge for its designers was to stop the line acting as dam to stormwater which routinely sweeps across the landscape.
Consequently, the project is built almost entirely on embankment with frequent breaks in the form of culverts, bridges and viaducts. Some 184 engineering structures are required in total, including seven reasonably lengthy albeit rather stumpy viaducts.
Behind all that is the Oc’via consortium, delivering the project as a 25-year public-private partnership. Oc’via’s shareholders are Bouygues, Bouygues subsidiary Colas, Spie Batignolles, Alstom, Meridiam Infrastructure and Fideppp.
It is not a hugely long rail line, and as such it is not demanding a huge investment: €2.28bn (£1.59bn) overall, with £1bn of the work being delivered under the PPP contract.
The two stations are being financed and built separately. It’s a fairly conventional PPP deal for France (see box), and a fairly conventional organisational structure, with Oc’via handing responsibility for construction and operations down to JVs formed of its member companies.
In both phases those JVs are led by Bouygues Construction and its project director François-Xavier de Malherbe.
Malherbe is a veteran of international grands projets - indeed this is this first project in his homeland for some time. And he’s cracking on with it - only five years are allowed for detailed design, construction and commissioning.
Bouygues’ UK High Speed rail ambitions
Bouygues Travaux Publics UK chief executive Vincent Avrillon is clear and confident about Bouygues’ desire to use High Speed 2 as a launch vehicle for a much bigger presence in the UK.
It has teamed up with Sir Robert McAlpine and VolkerVessels in an intriguing blend of Continental and UK expertise from three major contracting giants that are all, despite their sizes, still family-owned and focused on self-delivery.
Bouygues takes that self-delivery mantra and moves it up the process into design as well as construction, and Avrillon sees that as significant.
“We self-deliver mainly,” he explains. “And our technical approach is different, I think.
“We have our own technical department, with 300-plus engineers to make sure we optimise any project we work on,” he explains. And while they are based in France, Avrillon says they would be working on High Speed 2 (HS2) - in partnership with UK consultants as necessary.
So it is no surprise that Avrillon is pleased that HS2 project promoter HS2 Ltd is moving towards introducing a strong element of design and build into its contracts.
“We are very keen to go and design and build. All clients want innovators and the best process is an early contractor involvement process where the contractor is able to bring innovation.
“On HS2, the idea is to propose something different. I believe we have an interesting team; a fresh team,” he says. Time will tell. But Avrillon is confident.
“Our technical approach is different. It is a French approach. And it is very, very good too.”
“We are doing this work in half the time of a conventional SNCF (French railways) project,” he says.
“We are doing eight years of design and construction in four. And that’s about two years less than Lisea,” he adds, referencing the consortium now building the Bordeaux- Tours high speed line just a few hundred kilometres to the west (NCE 13 June 2013).
And, as with all PPP projects, late delivery cannot be contemplated. Once the contracts are signed, the clock on the 25 year concession is ticking.
“It’s called a public private partnership, but it’s not a partnership,” rues Malherbe.
François Xavier de Malherbe
François Xavier de Malherbe has been in charge of major projects at Bouygues Travaux Publics for over 30 years. In recent years he has supervised the construction of a major new container harbour in Caucedo in the Dominican Republic, the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant in Finland and motorways in Croatia.
In the distant past, he worked on the construction of the architecturally stunning Pont de Normandie and the Meteor line in Paris.
On this project, de Malherbe is leading all design and construction teams, united under the flag of Oc’Via Construction. Furthermore, he coordinates real estate operations, archaeology, and water and environmental management for the Oc’Via concessionaire.
But he is already looking to go abroad again, with the UK’s High Speed 2 firmly in his sights.
“After you give your signature, it’s your problem. There are fixed payments on availability and penalties for delays. So we really cannot afford to be late,” he says. This means that when flooding hits and halts work - as it did last September - there is no sympathy or extension of time.
“We had to work shifts to catch up,” he says.
And catch up he has. As we stand, 149 of 171 regular bridges have begun or are complete at the time of writing. And foundations and concrete piers for the 13 large concrete and steel composite structures, are complete. Assembly and launch of steel superstructures is now in progress.
There is of course also a major muck shifting operation. By April this year more than 300 pieces of earthmoving construction equipment had shifted 7.7M. m3 of material, representing 85% of the total.
With such a huge amount of material to move, it is no surprise to learn that the project has been a major employer, and the project team is proud that it has beaten its pre-contract target for employment of the long-term unemployed - a serious social issue in France today.
Twelve per cent of the total hours worked have been by those previously long-term unemployed versus a target of 7%. And the effort has not stopped.
“In July we are running a big employment fair to help them find a new job once work here comes to an end,” says Malherbe.
These workers will have something very special on their CVs - a mixed-mode high speed line. As Malherbe summarises: “It’s very new, and there are a lot of construction constraints. For high speed you cannot have sharp curves; for freight you cannot have steep inclines. For high speed you have ERTMS signalling; for freight you have classic lineside signalling.”
Nîmes Montpellier’s Three big challenges
1. Deliver a combined passenger and freight high speed railway link
The new rail link must tackle the constraints imposed due to the simultaneous use of the line by freight trains and passenger trains. This is a first in France. Furthermore, from the start it is designed to be able to handle passenger trains circulating at 300 km/h.
2. Do not impede flood flows
As a result of its location spanning a flood plain, the project has specific hydrological and drainage requirements associated with sudden, heavy rainfall phenomena.
As a result line will be built on embankment so it can cross (by viaduct or drainage systems) the numerous natural watercourses and streams prone to flood. The goal is to avoid increasing the flood risk.
3. Coordinate with the A9 motorway
The project borders a future section of the A9 motorway, to the south of Montpellier, being built concurrently by Vinci for Autoroutes du Sud de la France. Coordination is needed in view of the issues they must both address (land acquisition, noise mitigation, flood risk management and visual intrusion).
Under the authority of the Prefect of the Region, two coordination and monitoring committees have been appointed to ensure satisfactory progress of the two projects.