Friday, 23 September 2016

Midland Metro growing ambition

The 20km Midland Metro tram line between Wolverhampton and Birmingham was officially opened on the 30th of May 1999. Plans for a network serving the West Midlands were first proposed back in 1984, however it took a further 4 years before a serious proposal was announced.

Plans for a new light rail network were announced in 1988 and in November of that year the Bill to give powers to Centro to build the first line was deposited in Parliament. The initial line would follow much of the disused track bed of the Birmingham Snow Hill to Wolverhampton Low Level Line.

The Bill became an act of parliament a year later, however construction of the £145m line (at 1995 prices) did no begin until 1995 and was expected to open in August 1998. The consortium building the new line missed the deadline by 10 months and was forced to pay compensation.

The new line which was initially constructed between Wolverhampton St George's and Birmingham Snow Hill, with 23 stops in between finally opened in May 1999. It was the intention that this first line (Line 1) would be the first of several lines which would be built connecting Wolverhampton to Walsall and Birmingham City Centre to Birmingham Airport. Unfortunately however in 1997 Centro had to concede that it was unable to find funding for it's ambitious 3 line tram network.

In 2005 The Nation Audit Office concluded that line had not reached it's full potential of 8m passengers a year, instead the number of passengers using the line reached a plateau of around 5m which was still the case in 2015. The reason given was that line did not serve Birmingham City Centre, stopping instead just outside at Snow Hill Station.

The trams

The line was served by 16 T-69 trams built by AnsaldoBreda in Italy, each tram had a capacity of 156 passengers, 100 standing and 56 seated. The trams were refurbished in 2013, yet only a year later the trams were phased out as new replacement trams arrived.

Between 2014 and 2015 the entire fleet of T-69 trams was replaced with 21 Urbos 3 trams built by CAF in Spain. These vehicles had a capacity of 210, 156 standing and 54 seated. The £40m contract for the new trams included the construction of a new maintenance facility at Wednesbury.

Urbos 3 tram passing New Street station

New Street extension

The arrival of the new trams coincided with a turning point for the Midland Metro line and a new extension to Birmingham New Street station. Government approval for the 1.3km extension from Snow Hill to New Street via Colmore Circus, Upper Bull Street, Corporation Street and Stephenson Street was granted in February 2012.

Work on the extension began in June 2012 and it was hoped the the first services would be operating by March 2015. Unfortunately a series of delays meant that by December 2015 trams were only operating as far as Bull Street tram stop. It wasn't until May 2016 that trams finally began serving New Street.

Urbos 3 tram at Birmingham New Street stop

The Future

A further boost came to Midland Metro in June 2016 when the then Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin gave the go ahead to a £18m extension of the line in Wolverhampton. The project will extend the line along Pipers Row with stops at the bus station and the city’s railway station. The scheduled opening date for the extension is 2019.

Plans to extended the line from New Street to Centenary Square by 2019 are also at an advanced stage. Currently the line terminates at the junction of Stephenson St and Pinfold St. At this point trams turn back to make the return journey to Wolverhampton.

Stephenson St is currently the end of the line

Tram approaching Snow Hill stop passing No. 2 Snow Hill

Tram bound for New Street stands at Snow Hill stop

With a new sense of optimism and with HS2 on the horizon plans are now being drawn up to build a new line branching out from Corporation Street to Curzon Street and further still to Birmingham Airport. There are also plans for an extension to Edgbaston which it is hoped will open in 2021.

It may have taken several decades but appears that the West Midlands may finally get a network worthy of it's size and importance.

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Monday, 5 September 2016

A556 Knutsford to Bowdon project August update

Work to construct a new 7.5km dual carriageway connecting the M56 and M6 has been progressing steadily since 2014 and despite a very wet 2015 the project looks set for completion in early 2017. 

If you are unfamiliar with the project you can find some background information here

My last update was published only 2 months ago, however since then a lot has happened so I thought I would return back to the project to check on progress. During this visit I was granted privileged access to parts of the site not easily photographed from the public highway. 

With the help of my guide for the afternoon I was able to get some close up shots of a number of bridges being constructed. It was also a chance to see close up how much work had progressed on the road itself, with some stretches requiring only 1 last course of tarmac and lines to be painted. 

The first major milestone to report is the completion of the bridge that will carry traffic travelling on the A50 over the new A556 alignment when it opens. The A50 was realigned on the night of Thursday the 28th of August and reopened to traffic on Friday morning.

The A50 was scheduled to be closed on 2 nights between the 28th and 29th of August, however work was completed ahead of schedule so only 1 night time closure was required. 

Traffic travelling over this section of the A50 is currently under traffic light control whilst the remainder of the work is carried out to complete the tie-ins that connect the existing A50 to the new alignment over the bridge.

The images below were taken from the old A50 road alignment and show traffic using the new bridge to pass over what will be the new A556 road. 

As well as the A50 bridge a number of other new bridges are being constructed to carry traffic over the A556.

Starting from the southern end (closest to the M6), Old Hall Lane underpass is now complete and work to infill the area surrounding the underpass is at an advanced stage. The entrance to the underpass is just visible at the bottom of the image below. 

The bridge in the image below, also visible in the image above will provide access for traffic wishing the access the M6 from the existing A556 alignment and the service station located next to junction 19 of the M6.

An exit slip will carry traffic travelling north towards a newly constructed roundabout before travelling over the bridge. A road will link this and a southbound entry slip to the existing A556 alignment. 

The road, slip roads and bridge are close to completion. On the day of my visit a Cat D6T dozer was working in in tandem with a Bomag smooth drum roller to prepare the road foundation, before the sub base and subsequent courses are laid. 

Travelling northwards the next bridge which will provide access for Bentley Hurst Farm is almost complete. The earth mound behind the bridge is the existing Bentley Hurst lane, once the lane has been diverted over the new bridge the earth on which the existing lane sits will be excavated to make way for the A556.

After Bentley Hurst lane travelling north is the green bridge. This bridge is being constructed solely to provide a link for wildlife to pass safely between habitats thus reducing the impact on the natural environment.

During the project a number of other environmental mitigation methods will be employed, such as the creation of 50 hectares of new habitat woodland and the use of "bat overs". The bat overs are wooden fences erected between areas of woodland which are used to redirect bats up and over the road and safely over HGVs and other vehicles. 

The green bridge is in a relatively early stage of construction as can been seen in the image below. However with all other bridge structures constructed work can focus completing the green bridge.

The image below shows an example of a bat over used to help divert bats up and over traffic. 

The structure for what will be Chapel Lane bridge pictured below is complete, work is now focusing on building up earth around either side of the bridge in order to build approaches. Once the approaches are built Chapel Lane can then be diverted and the existing road excavated.

Unfortunately there wasn't a safe vantage point from which to photograph Millington Lane bridge, however the bridge structure is complete and work to infill earth around the bridge is under way. 

During my visit I got to see some of the completed sections of the road, the image below shows the new concrete central reservation barrier of which a large section has already been complete. The road surface on this particular section has already been laid up to it's 2nd to last course, which means this section only needs a final surface dressing and lines painting before it is complete. 

There is still a great deal of work to be carried out on other sections of the route however, the existing Bentley Hurst lane for example still has to be excavated down to a depth of around 5 meters before it is level with the new A556 alignment. Millington Lane is also yet to be diverted and excavated.

Work on Chapel Lane and Millgton Lane will take place during September to divert the existing roads to the new aliments. The works will require a number of closures therefore residents are urged to check local press and social media for updates.

Some stretches are nearing completion (above) whilst others are still being excavated (below)

At the M56/A556 junction engineers are pushing to complete the new junction in order so the M56 eastbound exit slip can reopen in December this year.

As this project draws to and end I will be keeping a close eye on progress and report any major developments over the coming months.

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Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Mersey Gateway August 2016 update

It has been 5 months since I last updated progress on the construction of the new bridge across the Mersey, the last blog about the project posted in May focused on the task of upgrading the road connections to the bridge.

Since the last update in March 2016 a great deal has happened and 2 of the 3 pylons that will eventually support the bridge are reaching their final heights. As of the 28th of August the north pylon was at a height of 102m, with only 8m left to take it up to its final height of 110m. The south pylon was up to 117m with another 8m to go as of the 26th of August and the central pylon was at a height of 59m as of the 24th of August.

South pylon

Central pylon

North pylon

A view of the 3 pylons together taken on 26th of August. 

Throughout August anchor boxes had been installed into the north and south pylons, the anchor boxes will be used to secure the stay cables which will hold the weight of the bridge deck. The south pylon which will be the largest contains 16 anchor boxes, each of which can hold 4 stay cables, 2 on each side. The central will house 8 anchor boxes and the north will house 14.

During July and August the form travellers which will construct the bridge deck were lifted into position on the north and south pylons, with the central yet to lifted. The form travellers work in a similar way to the movable scaffold systems (MSS) which are being used to construct the approach viaducts. 

The form travellers each act a mould into which steel reinforcement is placed and then concrete is poured to form a bridge section. Each bridge section will be secured with a stay cable anchored to the pylon. 

Once each bridge section is secured and the concrete has set the traveller then moves along, half of the travel supported on the bridge section just constructed and the other half jutting out to support the mould, ready to construct a new bridge section. This process is repeated until 2 form travellers working from each pylon meet in the middle. 

The south pylon with the form traveller in position. 

Over the past 5 months the MSS which has been constructing the approach viaduct on the Widnes side has been making steady progress, as of the 20th of August 8 spans had been completed. Work has now begun to extend the width of each span to the final 6 lane width.

To extend the width of each span a machine called a wing traveller (pictured below) has been installed. This machine rests on the constructed span and reaches out sideways to support 2 moulds (1 either side) onto which concrete is poured. Once the concrete is set the machine is moved forward to repeat the process.

In Runcorn a second MSS is being assembled to construct the approach viaduct which will take traffic over the Manchester Ship Canal and onto the new bridge. This MSS will work in exactly the same way as the one on the Widnes side. 

Another large and key element of the project is the construction of Astmoor viaduct which will carry traffic from the A533 Central Express onto the new approach viaduct. This is complex and large structure which includes the construction of a new junction and a large viaduct which is close to industrial units, crosses a busy road and a busway.

This viaduct is being built in what could be considered a more traditional way. Piers have been constructed out of reinforced concrete onto which pre-cast concrete bridge beams are placed. 

Bridge beams over the busway

Piers already constructed ready for beams to be placed over Astmoor Road

The project appears to be progressing well and is on track to open in 2017. I'll be sure to keep up to date with the latest progress right up until the opening day. 

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Friday, 8 July 2016

Rail Live Highlights part 2

This is the second part of the blog looking at some of the highlights from Rail Live 2016, you can find part 1 here.

Heavyweight vacuum

One of the many live demonstrations taking part throughout the 2 day event was that of Railcare's RailVac system. By now most people will be familiar with truck mounted vacuum excavation systems that are now common at sites in city centres wherever utility works are underway and space is limited. 

The RailVac RA7 (or to give it's full title Ballast Vacuum Extraction System) takes that to a whole new level, with a powerful rail mounted vacuum system capable of vacuuming rail ballast from in between sleepers with ease.

The system can be used to excavate for re-ballasting S&C's (switches and crossings) and plain line, excavation of existing UTX's (under track crossings) or excavation to install new UTX's or simply to expose buried and broken drainage pipes.

The operator at the controls of the machine was able to excavate the ballast from around and underneath a number of sleepers in mere minutes. Not only was he in control of the suction pipe, which has a nozzle capable of spinning 360° in order to loosen compacted ballast, but he was able to move the vehicle itself using the remote control system. 

Within less than 5 minutes several sleepers had been exposed and undercut, with this speed Railcare claims it is possible to excavate a UTX 1 metre deep in around 10 minutes.

The images don't do the controller justice so we have added a video to Youtube to show this impressive machine in action and to show the impressive skill of the operator. 

Milling around 

Another impressive piece of kit that caught my attention was the Strabag RRV rail milling machine. Unfortunately I didn't get to see it in action but thought it was worth a mention. This was the first time the machine had been on display at such an event in the UK since it's arrival in 2010

The SF02 W-FS Truck is able to travel between sites powered by a MAN TGS tractor unit which produces 480bhp. Once at site the vehicle can be set up from road to rail mode in under an hour and then travel by rail to the work site at 45km/h. 

The 480bhp engine provides power directly to the rail wheels rather than providing traction through the road wheels. The engine also provides power for the milling machine housed within the trailer section. 

Once set to work the Strabag SF02 is able to process between  6 and 15 metres of track per minute and is able to re-profile track in a single pass dependent on track condition. Track with heavy damage may require 2 or 3 passes. 

In 2010 during trial work the machine was able finish 4100 metres of track with sections with sever damage over 6 shifts.

With the environment in mind the system leaves no waste behind, instead swarf is vacuumed up as the machine travels along, the swarf can then be unloaded and taken away for recycling.

During operation around 1500 to 2000 metres of rail can be milled at a time, after which time the milling heads must be changed. This can be done in 20 minutes so little time is lost and with 3 sets of heads kept on board the machine can finish up to 3500 metres of track per shift.

The machine can be returned back to work within 12 hours between shifts as the tips of the heads are replaced in a purpose built support trailer which travels with the machine. 

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Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Rail Live 2016 Highlights Part 1

Rail Live is an outdoor show held every 2 years which brings together companies from the whole rail industry, the 2 day event allows companies to show and demonstrate the products which they have to offer.

Over the course of the 2 days there were various live demonstrations of rail products from hand tools such as grinders to demonstrations of rail vehicles such as Railcare's RailVac system. 

As well as demonstrations, a number of seminars and presentations were held by Network Rail, HS2 Ltd and a number of leading rail companies.


HS2 was an obvious hot topic, with the construction phase getting ever closer. Alstom which hopes to secure Tier 1 contracts for signalling and systems, also is interested in bidding for the contract to supply rolling stock.

Alex Burrows Marketing & Strategy Director at Alstom UK gave a presentation which showed what Alstom had to offer, from rolling stock and systems to rolling stock maintenance and logistics.

Alstom is already a big player in the UK employing 2500 people over 20 sites. The company is probably most famous in the UK for the tilting Pendolino which has been speeding passengers up and down the WCML since 2001. People may not be aware however that a 3rd of all passengers daily are carried on trains built or developed by Alstom.

For HS2 Alstom has been developing a double deck High Speed train which the company claims could carry 40% more passengers than a standard single deck train.

Marketing & Strategy Director Alex Burrows discussing Alstom technology at Rail Live.

Maintenance innovation

With a record 1.7bn passengers carried on the UK's rail network last year, maintaining the network whilst reducing closures is imperative. In order to help maintain the 20,000 miles of track, Network Rail have invested in 8 state of the art Mobile Maintenance Trains or MMTs.

The 3 car trains built by Robel in Germany are operated by Colas Rail under a 3 year deal. The trains are kept at various locations around the country and mobilised to carry out repairs, renewals and upgrades,

Each of the mobile workshops consists of 3 carriages, the first contains welfare facilities for the engineers, the second contains tools and underneath the floor there is space for 6, 45ft rails. The third unit houses the workshop area which provides access to sections of rail to be repaired or upgraded, 

The 3rd carriage has no floor, instead clear access is provided for engineers to work on the rails below. The walls either side can be retracted to increase the amount of work space available, The system means that engineers will be able to work safely on sections of the railway in relative comfort. 

A gantry which spans between carriages 2 and 3 allows 2 2 tonne cranes to lift rail and equipment and transfer them between the storage area in carriage 2 and the workshop area. The workshop also contains power and air hoses in order to provide power for tools and lighting. 

It is expect that the new train will save Network Rail around £1m a year by reducing down time and increasing productivity.

The open floor workshop area of carriage 3 

 The hatch pictured can hold up to 6 45ft rails.  

Looking down the length of the train past the storage and welfare facilities in carriage 1

Much more to come in part 2

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Friday, 10 June 2016

A556 Knutsford to Bowdon - June 2016 update

It has been over a year since I started following the project to construct a new dual carriageway to replace the existing A556 alignment which connects the M56 at Bowdon to the M6 at Knutsford. In that time it has been fascinating to watch the project develop, now in June 2016 some tangible signs of the new road are beginning to take shape. 

Looking North from the A50 it is possible too see the first signs of the new road surface being constructed. On the day of my visit the site which sits on the A50 was a hive of activity, with articulated tipper trucks delivering thousands of tonnes of stone to create the base course.

Looking south from the A50 the main bridge structure which will eventually carry the A50 over the new A556 alignment is complete. With the bridge deck complete work has now shifted to building up earth on either side of the bridge in order to create an approach for the new A50 alignment. 


Looking between the bridge piers it is possible to see that work has also begun to construct the base layer to the south of the A50.

At junction 19 of the M6 work has reached the stage where construction can begin on the interface between the existing junction 19 and the new A556 alignment. 

Old Hall lane has now been closed permanently and a new underpass has been constructed, however this will only allow access for pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders. 

In the picture below it is possible to see the bridge that will provide the southbound entry/exit toward the M6 from the existing A556 alignment onto the new road. In distance the other bridge in the picture will provide local access over Bentley Hurst Lane.

At the Millington Lane site the bridge which will carry the lane over the A556 has been constructed and work can now focus on building the new lane alignment. Once the new lane alignment has been constructed work can move on to excavating the existing lane to bring the level down to that of the new A556 alignment. 

At the M56 end of the project some initial road surfacing is already taking place, with asphalt already having been laid on some stretches of the new road. 

Work to prepare the interface between the new road and the existing A556 is still underway with significant works already undertaken on the existing road. 

With another year to go until the completion of the project it is clear that there is still a great deal to do, however with ground works commencing well and key elements already complete there is no reason why the road shouldn't open on time in early 2017.

For more information about the project click here

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