Walton Bridge: community ties

Atkins | 09 Jun 2015 | Comments

The days of contractors and clients planning infrastructure improvements in private without any outside input are long gone. The element of public consultation has become an embedded, central part of project planning.

Roads, bridges, stations and parks are built for the public good – so it’s only right that the public should have input into their design and construction. This view has been at the heart of one of Atkins’ most iconic and successful recent projects – Surrey County Council’s A244 bridge over the River Thames at Walton on Thames in the UK.

“The ethos was to design and construct an iconic, new, permanent bridge to replace two life expired temporary bridges,” explains Rob Wheatley, chief engineer for Atkins’ Highways & Transportation business in the UK. “This through an integrated and collaborative team approach involving Surrey County Council (SCC) as client, Costain Ltd as the main contractor and we led the design efforts.”

There have been five bridges at Walton over the years. The first was timber and did not last long, while the second was washed away in a flood. The third bridge suffered damage during the Second World War and was finally demolished in 1985.

Since then, two temporary bridges have served the crossing, which is a vital artery over the Thames, sitting equidistant between Hampton Court and Chertsey Bridges and linking north Surrey with Heathrow and the motorway network. Given its importance, a proper, modern bridge was needed to provide a permanent link across the river and secondly, improve the traffic flow on the approaches to and across the bridge.

Overcoming challenges

The designers faced a number of challenges in their efforts to construct a new road bridge over the Thames to ease congestion while minimising disruption and calming local concerns over the project’s impact. As designer of the project, Atkins had to take into account a range of needs:

  • Requirement to provide an iconic landmark structure that enhances the local environment;
  • A single span structure to improve river navigation and open up views of the River Thames not seen for over 250 years;
  • An improved carriageway to benefit traffic flow on the key strategic route to Heathrow and the local road network;
  • Improved facilities for vulnerable road users by the creation of segregated facilities and end connections;
  • Removal of the two existing temporary bridges crossing the River Thames was required to be undertaken in such a way that it minimised the impact on the river, the environment and the public;
  • Sympathetic paving and landscaping of the Cowey Sale area to blend in with the riverside setting and help to create a traffic calmed area.

Considering the breadth of issues that a new bridge would raise, it was clear from the outset that getting local communities involved in the design of the bridge would be vital. Would the promised benefits be realised? Would the historical beauty and heritage of the area be preserved? Would local communities be affected by the construction process to an unacceptable degree?

To meet these needs, the construction team understood the need to proactively manage the construction process considering both sustainability issues as well as the maintenance of the local benefits historically provided.

Given that, the community’s input formed a cornerstone of the design plans. Atkins addressed concerns in advance so that any subsequent objections would be few and easily met by the design.

As part of the effort, promoter SCC and contractor Costain set about hosting community meetings to explain the challenges and solutions at every stage of the project. The level of detail involved in this was truly remarkable. For example, concerns over the impact on local wildlife were met by including kingfisher, bat and owl boxes, while the colour of the arch was selected specifically to help swans see it (they are short sighted by nature). In addition, invasive plants in the area were cleared out to allow local flora to flourish.

“The initial Public Inquiry in 2006 resulted in the Planning Inspectorate refusing permission and requesting that the junction design at Cowey Sale be looked at again. As a consequence, the design was changed from a clover leaf arrangement to a priority junction layout to increase the amount of prime Open Space being retained,” explains Wheatley. “And that was followed by the reduced arch height, the addition of a permanent cafe/toilet block, a series of timber bridges and mown paths within the Cowey Sale to open the area for the public.”

As an added amenity, extensive landscaping was done throughout the site area, including a new ecological pond, improved facilities to the existing car park in the Cowey Sale as well as better connections for pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders between the A244, the Cowey Sale and the Thames Tow Path.

Taking it into account

Naturally, the impact of such a significant construction project on local businesses can threaten to become a real issue with traffic diversions and delays due to works taking place on the road network, and increased congestion caused by construction site-generated traffic.

In order to minimise these, and having taken on board local concerns, a number of measures were put in place during construction.

  • All deliveries were made off-peak and dedicated traffic marshals employed to swiftly and safely remove them from the highway.
  • The river navigation was maintained throughout the construction works. The navigation controls were developed in consultation with the Environment Agency and the local River Users Group. Liaison with the local water sport clubs ensured their needs were addressed and their safe enjoyment of the waterway was maintained.
  • Excessive road closures were avoided, but, where unavoidable, we minimised the impact on traffic congestion. All traffic management was implemented off peak or overnight, extensively advertised in advance through the SCC website, including dedicated project pages, a letter drop to local residents and businesses, press releases to local newspapers and travel alerts on local radio stations. The diversion routes were clearly signed with special advance warning signs advising of the implemented road closure at all strategic junctions.
  • Opportunities for the local community to meet the project team and learn more about the project including the future construction timeline and any possible impact to the public caused by the works, at quarterly Community Engagement meetings.
  • The Thames pathway was maintained through the site along a robust rolled stone diversion with clear signage and child friendly route maps.
  • Pedestrian and cycle routes were maintained across the river.

Throughout all this, a key part of ensuring the bridge was viewed as positive addition to the local landscape was allowing the community to visit and understand how it was being built. Costain made sure guided tours of the construction site were arranged for the public, and organised visits for nearly 1,000 local school children to be escorted around the site and learn about the different roles undertaken by the project team while promoting the opportunities a career in construction can bring through a series of presentations.

After being completed on time and to budget, the new Walton Bridge opened in July 2013. Since then, the reaction from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Feedback from the local business groups has provided a positive indicator of the benefits of both the new bridge and the wider improvements to the area,” says Wheatley. “They include the regeneration in terms of a commercial benefit to businesses on either side of the bridge and the construction of the new bridge has attracted additional people to this part of Surrey who now regularly return now that the project has been completed. This has generated additional customers for local businesses who feel that there will be significant business opportunities in the coming years.”

Surrey County Council Cabinet Member for Transport John Furey said: “Good transport links help businesses grow, so as well as becoming the Thames’ latest landmark, Walton Bridge is also boosting Surrey’s future prosperity.”

Surrounding communities are so proud of their new bridge that some local businesses have even incorporated images of the structure into their company logos as they want to be associated with the new bridge and the area.

The impact on local business and community is not the only lasting legacy of the bridge. The success of the community engagement strategy and suite of communications tools used for this project are to now be included in future major schemes undertaken by SCC. The various communication tools used, ranged from regular update letters, live webcam, dedicated website, visual accessibility of the site, community engagement meetings, directed media coverage, community activities and site progress information boards.

Beyond that, the innovation and consideration that went into the bridge’s design and construction have been recognised by a range of industry bodies. It has already picked up several awards. Judges at the 2014 Institute of Structural Engineers awards singled out Atkins’ work on the bridge as being especially noteworthy.

They said: “This, simple yet elegant, project demonstrates the ability of the design and build process in delivering a high value and delightful bridge. The team worked tirelessly over many years to thoroughly satisfy the changing demands of the project at every level.”

In 2014, the Institute of Civil Engineering (ICE) announced the bridge had won its prestigious London Community Award.

In its commendation, the ICE said: “Walton Bridge strongly demonstrates the benefits of partnership working, with Surrey County Council, Costain and Atkins staff working as a fully integrated team to overcome significant challenges with innovative and effective solutions to deliver a truly exceptional project. Importantly, the team has established the project as part of the local community and has greatly satisfied local residents.”

In addition, the project received the prestigious British Construction Industry Best Practice Award in 2014, in recognition of the efforts of the whole team. This year the project has been shortlisted in the Construction News Awards Project of the Year (£10 to £50 million) category.

You can read more about the Walton Bridge project here, or see one of the many press releases here.

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