Driving the West Coast Main Line

Atkins | 10 Jul 2009 | Comments

The UK’s West Coast Main Line was first built in the early 1800s, as a number of separate lines. It was linked up over time, eventually connecting London in the south to Glasgow in the north.

By the early 1990s, the West Coast Main Line was in desperate need of updating. It risked becoming a real blight on the network’s performance targets, as an ever increasing train service pattern had to be accommodated at increasingly higher speeds.

During 2007 and 2008, the team at Atkins completed a feat many had thought impossible. Within two years, the team had modernised signalling on the Rugby and Nuneaton stretches of the 401-mile West Coast Main Line network. Twenty-one signal interlockings were progressively installed during weekend and public holiday timed engineering work, while the line was kept operational for the rest of the time.

The achievement allowed for the introduction of a demanding new timetable for the West Coast Main Line on 14 December 2008.

“It was one of the biggest signalling engineering projects ever undertaken on Britain’s railways,” says Mark Southwell, managing director of the rail engineering business. “Many believed it couldn’t be done, but the Atkins team achieved the task. It has made a vast difference to the travelling experience on the West Coast Main Line as it has liberated a great share of the time savings on the route.”

The outlook for the project wasn’t always so optimistic. In fact, it all could have gone horribly wrong.

 Getting off track

Network Rail, which owns and operates Britain’s rail infrastructure, awarded Atkins the contract for the design, installation and testing of signal works for the Rugby Remodelling Project in 2005. With the work well under way, Network Rail then asked Atkins to take on the contract for the Nuneaton remodelling, after the existing contractor said it was unable to complete the work in time for the December 2008 timetable change. The two projects were merged together and a single commissioning schedule was created, called RuN.

The long haul to modernise the West Coast Main Line and cut journey times began in the mid-1990s and was finally achieved at the end of 2008. But the final two years of the project were the most challenging part of the upgrade. This is where the Atkins team was put to the ultimate test, under pressure to beat deadlines and minimise disruption.

Rugby is one of the line’s most important junctions, but it needed an upgrade as trains could only run at 75mph through the station. This slowed journey times and was far below the linespeed of 125mph achievable by the tilting Pendolino high-speed trains. These had been introduced by Virgin Trains and, together with a number of upgrades to increase the linespeed along the route, were responsible for cutting up to an hour off journey times between London Euston and Glasgow Central.

The Rugby Remodelling Project involved updating the track and overhead line electrification, renewing the signalling, building two new platforms and upgrading the station facilities. The Nuneaton Remodelling Project involved a total renewal and reorganisation of the railway layout to permit the segregation of trains diverging from the main line from those wishing to flash through Nuneaton at high speed going north-south. An army of contractors and a strong Network Rail programme management team were assembled to make this all happen in 24 months.

On the signalling side, Atkins was tasked with replacing the 40-year-old interlockings or signalling control systems, with a modern train detection system based upon axle counter technology and signalling controlled by seven Solid State (Computerised) Interlockings linked to a new Signalling Control Centre.

Atkins’ Mark James, regional programme director for the Midlands and North, explains the challenges involved in replacing the Rugby and Nuneaton signalling systems in quick time while ensuring that weekly operation of the train system could continue.

“The West Coast Main Line is the busiest multi-traffic railway in northern Europe; access was always going to be difficult. We compressed three years of work, from concept design to final commissioning, into two years using more than 50 separate stages,” he says.

“Each one of those stages required a design, build and test delivery. It could quite probably have been done in a 12-week total closure in the third quarter of 2008, but this was an unacceptable closure plan. Instead, we did it over 104 weeks and at least two lines were always open for traffic from Monday to Friday, which kept the line running and the fare paying public contented – most of the time.”

Doing the works over such an extended timeline of stages meant employing an army of people, says James. Such a project would normally be run with upwards of 80 to 100 site personnel, with 40 to 50 working per shift. But because the work was constantly having to be scheduled between days and nights and from weekends to mid-week, over 200 people under the control of Atkins’ heads of construction and testing were used per shift at the peak in August last year.

A major support in this challenge, according to James, was the appointment by Network Rail of Bechtel, the US engineering firm, as the Programme Management organisation. The company is recognised as world class in construction management and monitoring, and in its reporting systems for the delivery of projects.

“In order to control such a demanding programme, we have, in close liaison with Bechtel, had to run a large and complex, highly detailed integrated programme and had to do a combination of daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly reporting. We were part of a very politically significant programme and the attention on the successful achievement of milestones was very extreme at times,” says James.

Bringing the right people on board

Mark James became involved as project director at the time Atkins was awarded the Rugby contract: “When Network Rail offered us the Nuneaton project, my task was to get a significantly larger team of workers working seamlessly together as quickly as possible. At the point of merging the projects, Nuneaton’s first significant milestone was less than 15 months away,” he says.

Many of those in the key roles were existing Atkins employees. Over two-thirds of the construction team came from gold list partner suppliers. But because so many workers were needed – some 400 – the project had to hire some staff who weren’t on the gold list. This brought further management challenges as these new employees had to be more extensively trained and inducted into the Atkins’ way in order to achieve the exacting standards of finished works that were required. Another success was the formation of a high level project steering group with Network Rail and Bechtel to deliver the programme: “It looked at situations and issues where we needed a particular solution without interrupting the coal face work. We gathered together the best brains from the three of us and let them work on the problem off-line, then fed the solution into the delivery programme,” says James.

Testing the timetable

The December 2008 timetable change was the most radical in the line’s history. It heralded a new era in UK train travel following the West Coast upgrade. An extra 1,100 trains now run on the line each week, cutting journey times by up to 30 per cent and increasing freight capacity by 70 per cent.

Senior project manager Steve Higham says that the real skill of a major upgrade is to keep the passenger and freight service running while renewing every piece of track, signalling and overhead line equipment. This was achieved through a complex programme of staged works. The strategy at Rugby was to upgrade the down side of the railway while temporarily running all traffic over the up side and vice versa. This required a temporary signalling system, the construction of a new platform, rebuilding of two bridges and removing significant amounts of redundant infrastructure.

“With rare exception, the existing railway kept on working while the new one was built around it. Given the complexity of the challenge at the outset, this was all down to successful planning and huge personal commitment from large numbers of Atkins employees, which delivered the programme week in, week out,” says Higham.

The need for constant reporting of progress to Network Rail spawned some important innovations, which have since been used widely across Atkins. One was the software system developed to analyse

the way the project delivered against budgets. This Work Package Management (WPM) system is now used on all rail engineering projects undertaken by Atkins. WPM was developed under Atkins’ project controls manager Paul Knighting, whose job was to guarantee the project had the people, processes and systems in place to ensure the works were on schedule.

“At £125m, the project schedule was undoubtedly large; it was also truly complex. At its peak, the project had a turnover of £1m per week. To ensure we understood what the actual expenditure was against each work package budget, we developed Work Package Management. This allowed us to anticipate the final cost using current performance indices,” says Knighting. It also ensured that Atkins was thriving under the scrutiny of Bechtel and Network Rail, and able to demonstrate their success at every stage along the way.

Overall, the project revolutionised Britain’s premier rail line and set the standard for Atkins’ rail engineering projects and signalling business systems for the future.

“Rugby/Nuneaton was the most complex signalling job on the West Coast programme,” says Simon Maple, Network Rail’s head of programme investment on the West Coast. “In addition, Rugby had to have a large number of stages to allow the railway to keep running during the programme, and Atkins was only brought in to the Nuneaton project very late on.

“It is a tribute to the skills and dedication of the Atkins team, ably led by Mark James, that the project was completed on schedule for the 14 December timetable change.”

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