A fine track record

Colas Rail was formed when Seco Rail and AMEC Spie Rail were merged in January 2008. This brought the skills and expertise of what were already two top engineering companies into one body. Prior to that, Seco Rail was a leader in track maintenance and renewal, line construction, and urban transport which had been bought by Colas in 2000. After the merger, and the subsequent acquisition of Pullman Rail in 2012, Colas Rail has provided a broad range of specialist services to the UK rail industry, including:

  • High output and conventional track renewals
  • Multi-disciplinary rail systems project delivery
  • In-house rail systems design capability 
  • Asset management & maintenance
  • High speed rail capability
  • Light rail and Metro development
  • Freight operations 
  • Operating and maintaining the largest fleet of On-Track Plant (OTP) in the UK
  • Rolling stock refurbishment

Colas Rail has grown its UK rail market share significantly in recent years and was recently identified as one of Network Rail’s five largest contractors. In the UK alone, Colas Rail employs in excess of 1,500 people, including the largest market share in track renewals through the S&C Southern Alliance and two ‘plain-line’ contracts in Anglia and the South East. 

The company also operates the UK’s largest fleet of On-Track Plant with many of the engineering trains delivering commodities such as ballast, sleepers and rail to enhance the national rail infrastructure. In addition Colas Rail operates and maintains Network Rail’s fleet of infrastructure monitoring and maintenance trains, high output plant and rail grinding contracts.

Having invested in excess of £80 million on new plant and equipment, the company has grown to become the fourth largest rail freight operator in the UK, with a series of long-term major contracts with clients such as Network Rail, Tarmac and Total. It also refurbishes rolling stock through its subsidiary, Pullman Rail, based in Cardiff.

However, as Executive Development Director Iain Anderson points out, this is a company that does much more than rebuild and run on the UK’s railway in a transactional manner - it seeks to build long-term, collaborative relationships with its clients and partners, to the benefit of all concerned. And in addition to the long-term framework contracts for its plant, these credentials are further underlined by its unique position as a contractor on three UK major Rail Infrastructure Alliances:

As a leading member of the £400m Wessex Capacity Alliance (also including AECOM, Mott MacDonald, Network Rail and Skanska), it is currently undertaking the remodelling of Europe’s busiest station - London Waterloo - which handles more than 99 million passengers per year. This work will include the revitalisation of the Waterloo International Terminal that has sat dormant since the switch of the Eurostar to St Pancras.

In the West Midlands, again in a collaborative relationship as part of the Midland Metro Alliance, it is at the heart of delivering a ten-year £1 billion-plus light rail enhancement programme for Transport for West Midlands. This is set to revolutionise urban transportation in this part of the world, and is closely interacting with traditional rail enhancements such as the remodelling of Wolverhampton station on the West Coast Main Line and the forthcoming terminus for HS2 at Curzon Street.

Alongside these projects, Colas Rail is delivering the £500m, S&C Southern Track Alliance with Network Rail and AECOM, where it is responsible for delivering complex track renewal and enhancements. This work currently includes major junction remodelling and the modification of the lines into Euston station to allow for the future arrival of HS2.

Through these three major UK Alliances, Colas Rail is delivering more than £2bn worth of rail infrastructure enhancements. Even more noteworthy is the company’s track record in the delivery of high-speed lines - two of the three UK Alliances are led by Colas Rail individuals with significant high-speed experience gained through building schemes on the continent. 

Colas Rail can boast a host of achievements in high speed rail, having delivered in excess of 3,500km (2,175 miles)of high-speed railways across Africa, Asia and Europe. To put that into global perspective, the company believes it is second only to China in terms of the amount of high-speed track built. 

“We are capable, and we have the skills to do what is required for high speed in the UK,” says Anderson.  “As far as having the necessary experience and resource to build HS2 is concerned, it is worth remembering that we are currently working on three high-speed lines in Europe and North Africa.”

Colas Rail was heavily involved in the construction of the only current high-speed line in the UK, HS1. Formerly known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL), it was the first major line built in this country since 1899. It opened in stages - the first phase in 2003 and the second in 2007 - and Colas Rail was the firm behind the detailed design, supply and installation of the 46 miles of track, overhead line electrification and mechanical systems on the first phase of the line. 

In France Colas Rail is a member of the Oc’via consortium delivering all aspects of track and catenary on the 80km Contournement Nimes-Montpellier (CNM) bypass, which is due to open in October next year. This has been procured through a 25-year PPP, so ensuring high quality delivery is paramount, to ensure good track access and low maintenance requirements. 

On the 182km Rennes-Le Mans line (PBL) in northern France, it recently installed all the catenary along with several sections of track in providing technical support and capability to the main contractors. 

In Morocco, it is currently delivering the 183km of track and catenary for the first high-speed line in the north of the continent from Tangier to Kenitra. This scheme, due to be commissioned in 2018, has taken advantage of many of the lessons learned in the recent work both at CNM and BPL (as further outlined below).

When it comes to bidding for HS2 rail systems contracts, with its global high-speed multi-disciplinary experience and its position as the leading track contractor in the UK Colas Rail will be able to demonstrate both its UK credentials and a track record across a number of overlapping technical areas. 

“We innovate,” says Anderson. “That ability was recently brought to bear both in the CNM and Morocco projects. We used road-laying technology in CNM, which has really improved the delivery of the project. The subsequent use of road laying techniques to install the bottom ballast allowed the use of more efficient road-based plant and significantly reduced the need for intermediate tamping - thus speeding up the overall process.”

The long-term effects are impressive, too. The technique involves applying a layer of energy-absorbing asphalt to the formation layer first, before the ballast. The asphalt layer absorbs energy that would otherwise cause wear and tear to the rails and overhead catenary, which means considerably reduced costs over the lifetime of the track. This innovative solution has led to track outputs doubling to 2km per day. This method has also been applied to both the Moroccan and CNM lines, with construction all but completed as this issue of RAIL went to press. 

The Moroccan project is currently ahead of schedule. It’s a joint venture contract and includes a design-build component for a double-track, high-speed line. Both preliminary studies and construction are included, as are peripheral elements such as installation of the overhead catenary, work site facilities, supply of materials and facility construction. The line is scheduled to open in the first half of next year, and follows a number of other high-profile Colas Rail projects in the country (mostly tram systems). 

Colas Rail can call on its specialist disciplines within these schemes, including trackwork, overhead line equipment (OLE) installation, and maintenance. 

The CNM project forms part of a much wider high-speed network that will eventually reduce journey times between Paris and the south of France to a mere three hours. Colas’ involvement in the overall project is two-fold, with the installation of both track and OLE. It has previously laid track between Valence and Bollene (200km), installed 49 switches and crossings, and completed 340km of electrification.

Crucially, while it can call on support from the global business, Colas Rail Ltd is UK-based with a head office in central London. It is a firm supporter of using staff trained and experienced in the UK’s railways, and its commitment to training and development was recognised earlier this year with the award of the Graduate Scheme of the Year at the Rail Industry Awards. 

Individuals from this scheme are themselves responsible for overseeing significant programmes of work while receiving strategic support and direction from leaders with relevant experience in delivering large and complex projects. Nowhere is this more applicable than in the field of high speed rail. 

Colas Rail already has two Project Directors with international high speed rail experience leading major Alliances in the UK, and with the three high-speed lines shortly coming to a successful conclusion it has access to a vast amount of high speed rail experience, both at a corporate and individual level, which it is keen to reinvest into the UK’s own network. 

Anderson explains why this is important: “High speed rail is different, and experience is fundamental to success. It’s something money can’t buy so these people’s skillsets are a critical factor. When those three other high-speed lines are complete, we will be in a position to blend our UK resources alongside experienced high speed staff which we believe has the potential to be of enormous benefit to HS2.” 

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