Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Northern Powerhouse: Rail franchise announcement

On the 9th of December 2015 the DfT finally revealed who will be operating rail services in the North from next year. Prior to the announcement the future of rail services in the North looked uncertain, with a number of trains being moved South with no obvious replacement.

However the DfT's announcement contained a few pleasant surprises. The main surprise being that the North will see the arrival a greater number of new trains by 2019 than originally anticipated.  The number of new carriages announced has jumped from 120 prior to this announcement to over 500. The Dft also confirmed that Pacers will be removed all together by 2020

Our previous estimate for carriages in the North up to 2020 with the removal of Pacers gave the region an overall reduction of carriages of 3. However with this announcement the North so far could see a possible overall gain of 378 by 2020.

Updated carriage assumptions (click to enlarge)

The Transpennine franchise is to be retained by First who will operate the franchise until March 2023. First have promised to introduce 44 new 200km/h trains comprised of 5 cars. With the new trains they will introduce new direct services to Scotland from Liverpool.

Services from Liverpool to Glasgow will begin from December 2018 and existing services from Liverpool to Newcastle will be extended to Edinburgh from December 2019.

The current Northern Rail franchise which is currently operated by a joint venture between Serco and Abellio will from next be operated by Arriva Rail North. Like First, Arriva have promised new trains and say they will introduce a total of 281 new carriages comprised of a mixture of new DMUs and EMUs from 2019.

End of the line for unpopular Pacers

The new trains will help to bolster capacity on busy routes, aid the removal of Pacers and enable the introduction of new services. The new routes which will be launched from 2019 include: 

"New direct journeys from Bradford to Wakefield, Sheffield, Nottingham, Liverpool and Hull; from Leeds to Chester and Bridlington; from Lincoln to Leeds; and from Manchester Airport to Warrington, Bradford and Halifax" DfT

Arriva will also introduce a new high-quality ‘Northern Connect’ service, which will provide longer-distance services, with faster journeys and stations staffed daily with catering services and free Wi-Fi.

So is the promised Northern Powerhouse finally beginning to take shape? 

To see how your journey could benefit check out the Interactive map on the DfT's website

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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Liverpool2: new ship-to-shore cranes arrive

On a incredibly foggy afternoon in November the latest additions to Liverpool's skyline made their way into Liverpool bay. A small group has gathered in New Brighton on the opposite side of the bay in anticipation of their arrival. Unfortunately November 2nd turned out to be one of the foggiest days in recent times, so the expectant onlookers could only glimpse the ghostly silhouette of the enormous structures making their way into the bay.

Ghostly silhouette of the cranes arriving by ship on the 2nd of November (2015)

The structures in question are the first 5 ship-to-shore cranes which will soon take their place on the waterfront as part of the expansion of Liverpool's container terminal. The new river facing terminal will eventually have 7 so called "mega-max" cranes which will be able to load and unload 2 14,000TEU (Twenty-foot equivalent unit) ships at a time.

The cranes themselves stand 92m high and weigh roughly 1600 tonnes each. Given the size of the cranes it seems remarkable that they were transported 30.000km by sea from China, sat atop an ordinary looking cargo ship, all be it sat very low in the water.

On my return to New Brighton a week later 2 of the cranes had already been offloaded and were resting on their new tracks ready for commissioning. The unloading process is remarkably straight forward given their size and weight. 

2 of the cranes on the far left resting on the new quay

Put simply the cranes are slid off the ship with the use of specially constructed dollys which sit on rail as well as a system of pulleys and winches. Obviously this is a precarious task which relies on precise coordination which must be timed precisely with the ebb and flow of the tide.

There is a video on Youtube which demonstrates the process in action. 

Another key milestone for the Port's expansion was reach on the 27th of October when an new biomass handling facility entered service. The new £100m facility will supply wood pellets shipped from America to the Drax power station in North Yorkshire. 

The facility will eventually supply 3m tonnes to the power station each year. The pellets will be stored in silos capable of storing up to 100,000 tonnes before being transported 160km by rail to the power station.

The pellets Drax is using are made from waste products from the forestry and milling industry, as well as residual agricultural products, such as straw and energy. The company claims that the CO2 saving of using biomass over coal are 80%, even after harvesting, processing and transportation are taken into account.

The new concrete silos which will store biomass for Drax

The new container terminal and biomass handling facility constitute a £300m investment in the port by the owners Peel Ports, this investment will help to deliver 400 jobs and support the creation of a further 4500 indirect jobs.

The first phase of the new container terminal is due to be complete at the end of the year, with phase 2 to be complete next year with the arrival of a further 3 ship-to-shore cranes.

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Friday, 23 October 2015

Mersey Gateway project - Autumn update

It has been roughly 4 months since our last update of the Mersey Gateway project and since then quite a lot has happened. For the first time visible structures are emerging from the River Mersey and other important structures are starting to be constructed. 

In September a major milestone was reached when Europe’s longest bridge-building machine was named after a 3 month assembly process. The machine known as a movable scaffolding system (MSS) has been named Trinity.

Trinity will be used to construct the main elevated approach roads leading to the bridge. The machine will act as an enormous mould into which concrete is poured, after each 70 meter section of concrete has set Trinity will then move on to the next section. 

Despite weighing 1700 tonnes and being 75m long Trinity will move from pier to pier in one piece. The machine will do this using 2 175m long rails onto which she sits. There is a video of how the movable scaffolding system works here.

Trinity will initially construct the northern approach road (Widnes side) before being dissembled and then reassembled on the southern side (Runcorn side) to being construction of the southern approach road. 

Trinity Key facts 
  • Total length 175m

  • Casting length 70m

  • Weight 1,700 tonne

  • Number of Components 3,000
  • Number of bolts 60,000

Trinity pictured here in September before starting work on the new approach road. 

After months of preparation work to construct the bridge foundations which has gone on mostly unseen, the first visible signs of work have begun to take shape. 3 cranes have emerged from the river resting on each of the 3 foundations ready to begin construction of the main pylons. 

Each crane will rise steady with the bridge pylons as they are constructed and by the end will sit a few meters higher than the finished pylons. Once finished the cranes will be dissembled to reveal 3 large self supporting pylons from which the bridge deck will be supported. 

Northern pylon site

Middle pylon site

Southern pylon site

The view of all 3 tower cranes from Wigg Island (Runcorn)

The view from the Catalyst Centre (Widnes)

A key element of the Gateway project which will improve the connectivity to the bridge from the M56 has also started to take shape. At the start of October the eastbound exit slip from the M56 which is used to access the expressway leading to the current bridge was closed for 5 weeks.

The closure is to allow work to continue safely on the slip road which currently leads to a roundabout. This section of the route is a major bottleneck which often causes traffic to back up onto the M56. The new junction being constructed will hopefully alleviate the congestion on this busy section.

Looking south toward the M56 from the Weston Point Expressway


It has been announced that sections of the Central and Southern Expressways will close from 07 November 2015 for 7 months.

The Mersey Gateway website states: "The Central Expressway stretching from Halton Lea through to the Lodge Lane Interchange will be closed in both directions. The northbound Southern Expressway – heading from Hallwood Junction to Lodge Lane Interchange – will also be closed. A diversion will be in place via Runcorn Shopping Centre."

A map detailing the diversion can be found here

The map below shows the route drivers will take from the M56 to the new bridge once the project is complete in 2017

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Birmingham New Street redevelopment

On Sunday the 21st of September (2015) Network Rail finally unveiled the new enlarged concourse at Birmingham New Street station. The culmination of 5 years work requiring the effort of 1000 engineers working on site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The new concourse which is the size of 13 Wimbledon centre courts is now bathed in light thanks to a new 3,300 square meter roof made from steel and ETFE (Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene). The new roof introduces light to the station for the first time since the Brutalist concrete station was built to replace the original station in the 1960s.

The impressive roof which covers the new concourse

The £600m project to refurbish the station was part of a larger £750m development which also included the redevelopment of the old Pallasades shopping centre. The shopping centre now re-branded as Grand Central contains 200,00 sq ft of retail space as well as a new 250,000 flagship John Lewis store

Exterior of John Lewis and the "Media Eye" at the Southside exit

The £600m price tag of the station development may come as a surprise, especially considering that no new train capacity has been provided, however there was never any doubt that the station was in need of major redevelopment.

Birmingham New St is the busiest station outside of London serving 170,000 passengers every day, despite the fact the 1960's station was only designed to handle about half that number. The new station concourse and platform alterations will enable the station to handle almost double the number served today. 

In order to accommodate so many passengers, 30 new escalators and 15 new lifts have been installed, as well as 6 separate entry/exit points each with 10 ticket gates. Below the concourse all 12 platforms will be improved to allow better passenger flow and to open up the platform level making it seem less claustrophobic. Work was still underway on platform 5 on the day of my visit. 

The view through the de-cluttered platform level

An engineering train stands at platform 5 where work is still ongoing

Despite being the busiest station outside of London the 5 year development of the station continued whilst it remained open to the public. This was achieved by phasing the works, with a small concourse area developed first which opened in 2013. This allowed for the closure of a much larger area which involved the closure of the Smallbrook Queensway exit. 

The closure of the exit allowed for the massive task of the removal of 20,000 tonnes of concrete to create the new atrium. In order to bring light to the new concourse enormous holes were cut through several floors made of steel reinforced concrete. The removal of concrete relied on the use of special remotely operated excavators which allowed the operator to work safely from a distance whilst the machine broke up the structural concrete.

In order to reduce the impact of the development on commuters and people working and living within the city Network Rail made use of trains to transport waste material away. The use of trains saved 10,000 lorry journeys from the city centres roads. 

There was still a lot of work ongoing during my visit on the 22nd of September, Platform 5 was still being refurbished and external work is still yet to be complete on the Stephenson Street exit. Despite this passengers and members of the public were still able to enjoy the new atrium and the striking architectural features on the Southside and Smallbrook Queensway exists. 

Work continuing on the external features of the Stephenson Street exit. 

A few images of the striking architectural features, such as the reflective cladding and "media eye"

Some may question the £600m cost of the redevelopment, however I doubt that many will question that the station was in dire need of development or the success of the development itself. The building is striking and along with the Bullring it is a genuine architectural asset to the city. More importantly though the station now works for passengers and has enabled it to handle an ever increasing number of passengers.

The numbers

  • £750m Total development cost
  • 1000 engineers worked 24/7 for 5 years
  • 20,000 tonnes of concrete removed to create the atrium 
  • 3,300 square metre roof made from steel and ETFE
  • 170,000 passengers use the station every day 
  • 10,000 lorry journeys saved by using rail to remove waste 
  • 30 new escalators installed
  • 15 new lifts installed 
  • 13 centre courts at Wimbledon, the size of the new concourse

More pictures can be found on our Facebook page

Friday, 28 August 2015

Northern stock - all change

Update December 2015

On the 24th August (2015) the BBC reported Commuter groups angry at train 'cuts' from North West. The shock headline felt like another blow for passengers in the North who have already seen trains move south.

In May (2015) First TPE lost 5 of it's class 170s which are owned by Porterbrook Leasing to Chiltern Railways. In total FTPE will lose 9 of it's 170s, however an agreement was reached which meant that FTPE could keep hold of 4 170s until February 2016.

First TPE 170 stand at Manchester Airport March 2014

In the meantime FTPE have subleased 6 class 156s from Northern rail in order to provide services between Manchester Airport and Blackpool North. Class 185s have in turn moved to services between Manchester and Hull via Leeds in order to make up for the loss of 170s.

Northern has benefited from the arrival of refurbished 319s which are operating on newly electrified lines between Liverpool Manchester and Preston, however Northern has been forced to hire loco hauled trains due to shortages.

Northern class 319 on the first day of electric services between Liverpool and Manchester

2, 4 coach Mk2 sets hauled by class 37s have been leased from DRS to provide services on the Cumbrian coastline. This in turn released a unit to provide an hourly service between Manchester and Burnley over the recently reopened Todmorden Curve.

Despite First TPE introducing 10 brand new class 350s on it's Manchester to Scotland service, the loss of 5 170s has meant a lot of timetable and unit reshuffling. The reshuffle is only a short term measure and it is uncertain what will happen after February 2016 when a further 4 170s move to Chiltern. 

So it it would seem understandable then that commuter groups should feel angry at the loss of 17 electric trains from Northern. The 323s are currently used on a number of services including Manchester Piccadilly to Crewe via Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly to Hadfield.

What the BBC report does not say however is that the move is not due to take place until 2018/2019.

Porterbrook Commercial Director Olivier Andre told RAIL on August 25: “All the bidders for the Northern franchise have access to the Class 323 until 2018/2019. source Rail

London Midland 323 leaving Crewe

It's not all good news for London Midland either, as in December this year (2015) 7 of it's class 321s will be moving North to Scotrail to provide services between Glasgow Central and Lanark.  London Midland will make up for this loss by leasing class 319s which are being cascaded from Thameslink services. 

The reason for this shuffling of stock is due to the fact that both the First TPE and Northern franchises are due to come to an end in February 2016. In fact they were supposed to end in March this year (2015) but were awarded an extension to 2016. Therefore the companies that lease the trains face uncertainty about the future of the their rolling stock. 

It is for this reason that Porterbrook has chosen to lease it's trains to an operating company who can offer more long term certainty. Chiltern in Contrast to Northern and First TPE has a franchise agreement which extends to 2021.

The report does go on to say that "A spokesman from the Department of Transport said they would bring in "at least 120 brand new carriages".". This of course is good news for the North, however it will not solve the capacity problem in the short or medium term.  The 120 new diesel units which will not be available for several years are intended specifically to replace the unpopular Pacer units operated by Northern of which it has over 100. 

A quick tally of what we know so far about train movements and new trains promised by the government gives the North a potential overall loss of 3 carriages by 2020, assuming the north retains 319s and 15Xs which will be getting on for between 30 and 35 years old by then.

[Edit] Table adjusted to take into account number of carriages rather than simply the number of train units 

click to enlarge

It's taken a lot of investigation and this is an evolving situation. If you spot a mistake or have an update feel free to comment or e-mail Blog@EngineeringFocus.co.uk

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Tuesday, 25 August 2015

A556 Knutsford to Bowdon (August update)

Work to improve a vital link between the M56 and M6 began in November 2014 and has been progressing well since. The £200m project involves constructing a new 7.5km 4 lane dual carriageway between the two motorways in order to relieve congestion on this busy corridor.

The A556 is a major trunk road which serves North Cheshire, South Manchester and provides a crucial link between the M6 junction 19 and M56 junction 7. The existing A556 alignment is currently used by 51,000 vehicles per day, 11% of which are heavy goods vehicles. 

For more information about the project click Here

A great deal has happened since our initial look at the project in March this year (2015), works are now underway across the majority of 7.5km site.  As the new A556 alignments is being constructed away from the existing road a lot of the main works are not visible from the current A556.

Away from the A556 ground works are well underway to construct several bridges which will take the new dual carriageway under a number of roads including the A50, Chapel Lane and Millington Lane. 

Towards Bowdon a large section of land has now been cleared and levelled so that work can commence on the construction of a new grade separated junction providing a free flow link to the M56 which will remove the at grade roundabout separating traffic travelling toward Altringham.

The current view of Bowdeo junction from Yarwood Heath Ln

Construction of the new dual carriageway will require the excavation of  1 million cubic metres of earth, all of which will be reused on site to level the terrain and for landscaping in order to mitigate the impact of the new road. 

A visible sign of this translocation process can be seen at the point where the new road will pass under the A50. Here articulated Moxy dump trucks currently have to cross the A50 to carry material from one section of the work site to the other. The trucks which can carry up to 40 tonnes of material each have to cross the road under traffic light control. 

An articulated Moxy crosses the A50 having been given a green light. 

Work to level terrain on the north side of the A50, facing in the direction of Bucklow Hill

Facing south in the direction that material is currently being transported in. 

Facing North toward Bowdon at Millington Lane

Facing South, Moxys parked waiting for work to commence at Millington Lane. 

So far disruption of the A556 has been kept to a minimum other than speed restrictions and some overnight closures. However some noticeable disruption will occur in September (2015) when the junction which provides access to the westbound M56 from the southbound A556 will close for 4 weeks.

As well as the closure of the slip-road there will be overnight closures of A556 southbound and northbound between Bowdon Roundabout and Bucklow Hill. The overnight closures will be between the 18th of September and 2nd of October, there will however be no night time closures on Saturdays or Sundays. The overnight closures will commence from 9pm until 6am each night.

The closure of junction 8 and overnight closure of the A556 will allow for work to be undertaken to refurbish the Chester Road bridge which carries the A556 and start of the slip road over the motorway.

For more information about the closure and a map of the diversion route visit the Highways Agency web page,

Map of the new A556 route

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Friday, 14 August 2015

Liverpool2: A new deep-water port

Liverpool2 is the name given to the £300m deep water extension to the Seaforth Dock container terminal which is currently under construction on the banks of the Mersey. The extension will allow for 2 380m long "Post-Panamax" vessels to birth and be simultaneously loaded and unloaded. The new facility will open up the Port of Liverpool to 95% of the worlds global shipping fleet.

In order to ensure that 2 13,500 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) ships can be quickly loaded and unloaded at a time, the port will eventually have a total of 8 "megamax" ship to shore cranes and 22 rail-mounted cantilever gantry cranes. These cranes will work together to swiftly load and unload containers and then stack them within the port for distribution by road, rail, canal or sea.

The port extension will double the port's current container handling capacity from 750,000 TEU to 1.5 million. Many containers will be loaded onto other ships for transport elsewhere nationally and internationally, whilst the rest will be transported by road, rail and via the Manchester ship canal.

The A5036 which connects the port to the M57 and M58 has already been upgraded to provide improved road links and the port is served by rail links connecting it to the national rail network. What is lesser known however is the part that the Manchester ship canal plays in transporting goods.

The Canal which opened in 1894 was originally designed to bypass the port of Liverpool and the excessive dues being charged at the time, but as ships got bigger traffic began to decline after a peak of 18 millions tonnes in 1958 to 7 million in 2005.

However the canal is now becoming increasingly important as the transport industry looks to reduce the number of journeys made by road. To that end Peel Ports who owns and operate Seaforth Dock and the Manchester ship canal are making use the canal in order to transport goods by container. Small 200 TEU vessels make regular trips from Liverpool to ports along the canal, reducing the number of journeys made by road. 

Construction of the extension started in 2014 when crews began to install the first of the 296 piles which will make up the 854m long quay. The final piles are now being installed from a large jack up rig which has been a feature of the Mersey skyline for the past year. 

The process of reclaiming 12 hectares of land behind the sea wall began earlier this year requiring 3 million cubic metres of material dredged from a site 20 miles away from the port. A specialist suction hopper dredger named Willem Van Oranje has been working on project collecting and depositing 21,000 tonnes of material at a time.

The next phase of the project which involves vibrocompaction of the infill to settle the new land and the installation of capping beams along the new quay. The construction of the sea wall which will be constructed from pre-case concrete segments will require 30,000 cubic metres of concrete. Meanwhile the backhoe dredge Goliath has been excavating a trench next to the new sea wall to create a 16.5 metre berthing pocket. 

A major milestone to come in September (2015) will be the arrival of the the first 5 ship-to-shore cranes, each bigger than the Royal Liver Building. The cranes will arrive by ship from Shanghai and are so big they will be visible from 100 miles away.

If all goes to plan the the first phase of the project will be complete and ready for ships by the end of December this year (2015). With it the new port extension will bring 5000 jobs and £5bn worth of economic benefits to the region.

Key facts
  • 5000 jobs created (400 direct jobs and 4,600 indirect)
  • £5bn of economic benefit
  • 854m long metre quay 
  • Costing £300m
  • Will be able to handle 2x 13,500 TEU Post-Panamax ships at a time
  • 12 hectares of land reclaimed
  • requiring 3 million cubic metres of dredged material

The large jack-up rig installing the remaining piles

View of the 854m long quay

Pre-cast concrete capping segments being installed to form the sea wall

Recently constructed biomass silos

Hoper dredge Willem Van Oranje unloading material via a pipe leading to the quay

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Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Northern Powerhouse announcement

Today the Government launched "A blueprint for connecting the Northern Powerhouse" which sets out how the Government intends to improve transport links throughout the North.

The DfT website which has been launched provides a full list and road and rail improvements which have been recently completed, currently under construction or are planned. 

Below is list of just a few of the projects which fall under the Northern Powerhouse banner that we have covered. We will be providing updates for those still under construction and we also hope to cover some of the other projects which are planned over the coming years. 

Northern class 319 working one of the first electric services between Liverpool and Manchester

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

North West electrification - Farnworth tunnel

On the 3rd of August (2015) one of the largest TBMs (tunnel boring machines) ever built in Britain began it's journey through the Manchester bound Farnworth tunnel. Over the next few months the TBM which has been named Fillie will re-bore the tunnel to increase its diameter.

The reconstructed tunnel will replace 2 single track tunnels with a single larger twin track tunnel, which will allow for the electrification of the line between Manchester and Preston via Bolton. The widening of the tunnel will also allow for faster line speeds, with the speed of the line being increased to 100mph. The project forms part of phase 4 of wider £300m North West Electrification Programme which will electrify the lines between Liverpool - Manchester - Preston and Blackpool. 

Before work could commence to widen the bore, it first had to be filled with 7500 cubic metres of foam concrete and a 20m long "launch pit" had to be constructed. The foam concrete will help to stabilise the existing tunnel lining and ground around the tunnel as the machine advances.

Due to the irregular material to be excavated, the team behind the project opted to use what is known as an 'open face' tunnel boring machine, which unlike the TMBs used for projects such as Crossrail, does not have a large single rotating cutter head. Instead the machine employs 2 independently controlled excavators each with a reach of over 4m, the excavators can be fitted with either a shovel like device or a rotating tungsten carbide cutter, depending on the material being excavated. The excavators are housed within the large 9m diameter shield to protect the workers and machinery.

Like a conventional TBM it uses hydraulic rams at the rear of the machine to inch itself forward as material is excavate. As the machine progresses forward workers will install concrete segments which will form the new tunnel lining, in all 1900 concrete sections will be installed to form the reconstructed tunnel.

Whilst work continues to widen the Manchester bound tunnel passenger services will continue to operate using the smaller Preston bound tunnel, with a reduced service operating Monday to Friday. The single track tunnel will be used for trains running in both directions with a speed limit of 15mph until the reconstructed tunnel opens.

As well as re-boring the tunnel, the project also involves the completed the demolition of Farnworth and Moses Gate train stations in order so that they can be rebuilt to the new track alignment. In addition 1600m of track will be lowered at Farnworth and Moses Gate in order to provide space for over head line equipment. 

Key facts,
  • 120 people working on the project 24/7
  • Weight of the TBM 293 tonnes
  • 1900 concrete segments to be installed
  • Length of the tunnel 270m
  • Diameter of the TMB 9m
  • 120 lorries will enter the site via the A666 every day
  • 1600m of track lowered

Close up of the back of TBM before it begins its 270 metre journey

 Northern Rail 156 about to enter the Preston bound tunnel. 

 Northern Rail 150 passes Farnworth station on route to Manchester Victoria

A new access road has been built off the A666 to remove 120 lorry movements a day from residential streets. Fillie will be working to re-bore the tunnel beneath.