Thameslink's road to fruition

Or put another way, you can gather all the expert opinion you can find and still make the wrong decision. And by the time the next major project is looking for similar experience it will have dispersed, which makes tapping that knowledge harder. But even if your plan does work, it might not necessarily be efficient. You may have added more cost than was needed, or be running fewer services than could be run or be needed to run. 

This sets Blanchflower thinking, and there’s a long pause. He orders his answer and then speaks carefully: “The key driver in the London area, where you’re talking about a commuter railway, is your ability to move passengers. And so maximising capacity, particularly at these times when you’re taking part of the network out of operation, is a good measure for efficiency.

“In terms of construction measures it’s your ability to maintain programmes, how much rework you need to do as a result of your delivery. So the quality of what you’re delivering, your ability to deliver within the budgets you’ve been set, your use of contingency - I think there are a number of measures you can pick up. But I’m not saying necessarily that all of this can be quantified to the nth degree. I think there still has to remain elements of qualitative assessment, simply because of the complex nature of the industry in which we’re operating.”

There is another factor that particularly affected Thameslink. That was the continued rise in passenger numbers even after the project built it plans back in 2012. 

“When we first started planning the redevelopment of London Bridge we were talking about 37 million passengers per annum using the station. Today, we see well in excess of 50 million. So even some of the planning we did back in 2012, some of the underlying assumptions we made then, have been proved wrong simply by the increased growth in the network and the challenge that brings.”

Talking to Blanchflower about efficient project delivery, it’s increasingly clear that efficiency is almost whatever you want it to be. Becoming more efficient in one area leads to reductions elsewhere. The wider you cast your net the harder the problem becomes. At one extreme, it would have been much cheaper and quicker to build Thameslink with the railway completely closed to passengers. But other than long Bank Holiday weekends and Christmas periods, complete closure was never a realistic option.

That left Thameslink looking for ways to make individual parts of the project efficient within themselves, while still running sufficient trains for passengers. This is more easily done for repeatable tasks than for one-off jobs - if you’re a track gang charged with relaying 800 metres every night, then with practice you’ll become quicker or you’ll be able to lay more track for the same time.

According to Blanchflower: “When you’re delivering a major enhancements scheme, it’s not as if it’s something that’s replicable in that sense, and you can measure a true efficiency through that. 

“What we can measure is that as we move across London Bridge station from south to north, the cycle time for constructing each of the bridge decks, platforms and so on has reduced during the progression of the programme. Something that was taking us nine months to do initially, we’re now doing in six months. 

“There’s an inbuilt efficiency there within the delivery of the programme. As we have progressed through it we have better understood the logistics around the site and how we can progress through the cycle of demolition, foundations and column erection, bridge deck erection, platforms and so on that has led to a delivery efficiency.”

Efficiency can come from building in lower long-term costs, by making maintenance easier. Thameslink’s project director offers this view: “If you look historically at signalling schemes, they would have a lot of location cases distributed along the railway which hold the signalling equipment. We made decisions very early on that in terms of both future access and maintenance, but also in terms of quality of build, it would be far better to install a number of REBs , so we found a number of arches along the route where we’ve installed these REBs. You can get them pre-wired in the factory, pre-checked in the factory, and delivered to site.

“It’s efficient for us in terms of delivery and quality of work, and it drives efficiency into the ongoing maintenance and operation of the railway because the maintenance staff can do a lot of their faulting and testing out of the direct railway environment by going into the REB off-track. You can see a number of efficiencies we’re delivering in that respect.”

This pre-fabrication in signalling extended to the automatic train operation (ATO) system that Thameslink will use. Much of its development took place in a laboratory at Hitchin, with trains tested nearby on a short section of the Hertford Loop while normal trains continued to run on an adjacent track. 

By the time the first Class 700 arrived from Siemens, the project had completed 80% of the testing it needed. Using the loop’s test line with the ‘700s’ meant that only the final 10% of tests needed to take place on Thameslink’s core route under London, vastly reducing the disruption passengers might face.

Bermondsey dive-under used a great deal of pre-fabricated concrete. Pieces could be cast in factories to a better quality than could be done on site. 

Blanchflower explains: “You get a very good-quality product. Another interesting one on Bermondsey is that because we were demolishing a lot of the Victorian arches to create the space to build the new dive-under, we retained some the piers from the original arches to use as foundations for the new concrete arches for the new viaduct. That avoided us having to sink new foundations, and do a lot of time-consuming groundworks that would potentially be quite costly depending on what you find below ground. Re-using those foundations made for a far more efficient delivery.”

This re-use wasn’t initially expected. Says Blanchflower: “When we went through the detailed design with Skanska, the opportunity presented itself. And when we looked at the suitability of those arches - the strength within them, whether they could be used for that purpose - it was evident that they could be built into the design. 

“The Victorians usually got it right in terms of arch spacing, and so even when you’re looking at putting a concrete arch on an old brick foundation, the dimensions are pretty much the same.”

The cost of not installing something properly first time can be considerable. “Looking back historically, we’ve found that the cost of putting things right or the cost of prolongation can be six, eight, ten times higher than doing it right first time and on schedule - simply because of access constraints, rework cycles, and the inefficiency of delivery when you’re coming back and doing things a second time or not in the sequence you originally envisaged.”

But delays don’t just come from fixing poor installation, they can also come from external stakeholders - for example, train operators unhappy with the cuts their service could suffer, or local residents unhappy with potential noise from night-time work.

“Stakeholders can either be very supportive of what you’re trying to do or they can, if you don’t have them engaged, act as blockers,” reckons Blanchflower. 

“If you have a key stakeholder that’s acting as a blocker in any respect, it is likely to drive inefficiency into what you’re doing simply because of the effort you need to apply to re-engage with that stakeholder - their potential to frustrate access, their potential to frustrate station or network change or industry processes.”

Thameslink has faced most of the challenges any major project could face, giving Blanchflower a good perspective across the wider network. 

“You get into this cycle of the more the network is used, the more it needs to be maintained and renewed, and the more access you need. Somehow, we have to find the right balance as an industry between access availability and the offer we make in terms of train paths. That’s going to be one of our key challenges going forward as an industry, to make sure we keep the right balance there. 

“London Underground is facing that at the moment, as it moves towards 24-hour operations at weekends on many of its lines. You then have to work out how to fit in the maintenance and inspection activity that you need to do within the remaining five nights of the week. 

“There was a piece of work I was involved with a couple of years ago which was about getting the right balance between running trains and having time for access to do maintenance and inspection work. 

“We identified that a train on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night was more lightly loaded than a late-evening train on a Thursday or Friday night. You can more easily cancel the last couple of trains on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night, but allow the operator to run more trains on a Thursday or Friday night when the demand is there. 

“Therefore, you can give longer periods of access Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday nights, which means the maintainer can get more efficient work done because they have a longer window to do that work. They can do that then, and not worry about rostering people on Thursday and Friday nights when the window is much smaller and the inefficiencies of delivering that work are much greater.

“We have to continue as an industry to work those algorithms. Obviously, freight trains need to work into that, because a lot of freight runs overnight. But as an industry we need to continue to work these things - that’s the whole role of RDG at the end of the day. It’s RDG as the industry leader that should work these issues, to try to find the most efficient way of maintaining and operating this network.”

Thameslink should be finished next year. It will transform rail services across London’s north-south axis just as British Rail’s initial project did in the 1980s. Up to 24 trains per hour will run through the central core, linking Peterborough, Cambridge and Bedford in the north with Brighton, Wimbledon, Horsham, Maidstone, Rainham, Sevenoaks and Orpington in the south (and Littlehampton and East Grinstead at peak times).

Once the trains are running, it’s vital that the wider railway industry extracts every last bit of experience from the project team. They have learned valuable lessons that can help Britain’s railway continue expanding.

This feature was published in RAIL 828 on 3rd June 2017


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