Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Northgate redevelopment and St Martin's Way roadworks

The redevelopment of Chester's Northgate quarter has been progressing at pace since my last visit back in August 2020, with several new structures already starting to taking shape.

A 250 tonne crane has been on site for a number of weeks helping to install pre-cast concrete panels and steelwork. A large concrete core has already been constructed using concrete panels, this will house the stairwell and lift shafts for the multi-story car park. The structure of car park itself like the other buildings is being built out of steel.

Concrete core being constructed for the multi-story car park

One of the larger buildings which is already taking shape is the new cinema. The image below shows the steel framework which forms what will become the cinema, it also shows a stepped concrete structure which is where cinema-goers will eventually sit.

Cinema structure taking shape

The multi-use space which is being constructed directly behind the old library is also starting to take shape. Its multiple roof spans appear to be an attempt to mirror the local architecture so that the building fits in with the surroundings. 

Structure being built behind library 

Whilst work continues on the Northgate redevelopment another large construction project is also underway. If you live or work in Chester then you have probably already felt the impact of this work, as it has forced the closure of 2 lanes of St Martin's Way and Nicholas St, resulting in Chester's ring road being turned in effect, into a giant roundabout. This is because St Martin's Way and Nicholas St are currently closed in the southbound direction from Fountains Roundabout to Grosvenor Roundabout. The local authority decided that this would be the best solution for dealing with traffic, rather than just having a single lane in each direction from Fountains Roundabout to Grosvenor Roundabout

The works themselves are part of the wider Northgate redevelopment and will help to future proof the Northgate quarter against flooding and "drain bursts". The works involve building a 1km long tunnel underneath St Martin's Way, Nicholas Street, Grosvenor Road and Castle Drive, then out to the River Dee. The new drain which will have sections up to 1.2m wide will help direct rainwater away from the Northgate Quarter and the sewer system so that it isn't overwhelmed during heavy rain.

Looking up Nicholas St / St Martin's Way from Grosvenor Roundabout

The main contractor VINCI Construction is using 2 TBMs (tunnel boring machines) to construct 85% of the tunnels via a "pipe jacking" method. The remaining 15% will be constructed using a more conventional surface excavation method.

The 2 TBMs, one which is 1.2m in diameter the other 1m in diameter will bore the tunnels
underneath St Martin's Way, Nicholas Street, Grosvenor Road and Castle Drive. As the TBMs progress forward sections of concrete pipe will be pushed in from behind using hydraulic rams to form the new drainage tunnel.

The TBMs have been launched from 12m deep access shafts which have been sunk into St Martin's Way and Nicholas St. 9 access shafts will be required in total to construct the tunnel.

One of the shafts which has been used to launch one of the TBMs

The TBMs are using a "closed slurry system" to remove waste material from the tunnel. Water is pumped to a TBM and is mixed with waste material to form a slurry which is then pumped back to the surface. Once at the surface the slurry is filtered on-site to seperate soil and rocks from the water, once seperated the water is sent back down to the TBM for re-use. 

The slurry filtering system which separates waste material from the water

The drainage works which started in November 2020 are estimated to be completed by November this year. I'm sure the completion of the work will come as a relief to many who live and work in Chester, undoubtedly as Covid restrictions begin to ease traffic levels will begin to increase in and around Chester, so it is vital are completed on schedule.

If you would like to know more about the Northgate redevelopment check out my earlier post from my first visit in August 2020.


Short video clip showing the extent of progress so far


Twitter - Facebook - Youtube


Thursday, 22 April 2021

RIA calls for rolling programme of electrification

Today the Railway Industry Association along with 16 other rail bodies has written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps urging the Government to begin a rolling programme of electrification.

The letter coincides with the release of a report produced by the RIA called "'Why Rail Electrification?". They say "The report urges the Government to begin a programme of rail electrification now, in order to meet Net Zero legal commitments. It complements Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy by explaining why electrification is both a future-proof technology and a good investment."

The 80-page report sets out the case for a rolling programme of electrification and deals with potential sticking points such as cost, the report also looks at other forms of traction such as battery and hybrid technologies. The report does not dismiss battery or hybrid traction as an option but states that electrification is the "optimal choice for the majority of lines on the network"

Wires above the WCML

The case for electrification seems clear, I and many others would probably go as far as to say it's a no brainer, however it seems that the government has been dragging its heels since the GWML electrification debacle.

The fact that electrification of the GWML was delivered late and 3 times over budget wasn't so much the fault of the rail industry, but a failure of the Government to properly plan for the massive electrification project that it had promised to deliver. Put simply, during the CP5 (Control Period) HLOS (High Level Output Specification) covering the period from 2014 to 2019, the Government promised too much and failed to realise the enormity of the challenge and the fact that the industry lacked the skills to achieve such large amount of electrification in a relatively short space of time.

A graph shared on Twitter produced by rail electrification engineer Garry Keenor demonstrates clearly what went wrong with CP5. The industry went from no new electrification schemes leading up to 2012, then by the end of 2013 there were more than 20 schemes either in progress or in the pipeline.

20+ active schemes from 0 in the space of 5 years is not what the industry means when it says it wants to see a "rolling programme of electrification".

The sudden burst of activity meant that the industry had to rapidly tool up and find enough people with the necessary skills to carry out the work. Skills and equipment that at the time the industry simply did not have. And when new equipment such as Network Rail's High Output Plant System (HOPS) did arrive, it simply did not live up to expectations. 

CP5 HLOS map, showing projects that were completed, delayed or cancelled

The CP5 debacle lead to schedule and cost overruns which ultimately lead to the Government abandoning plans for the "electric spine". Since then electrification plans have either been delayed, put on hold or cancelled altogether.

It's not as if anyone didn't see this coming, the industry for years has been calling on the government to continue with electrification, all be it at a more manageable pace than the previous famine and feast.

Even I, a relative outsider have been writing about the lack of skills and the government's failure to properly plan for the electrification of Britain's rail network. Listed below are some of the blogs I've written about skills and electrification over the past 5 years.

CP5 HLOS: "Not all doom and gloom" 

The problem with Crossrail North 

Trans-Pennine electrification and Crossrail North 

Electrification - what went wrong? 

Northern - Powerhouse or Powercut?

Northern Rail Industry Leaders, Building the North's New Railway


Tuesday, 13 April 2021

East-West Rail progress so far

East-West Rail once completed promises to transform rail travel across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. This step-change in connectivity will be achieved by upgrading and re-building railway lines between Oxford and Cambridge, which were either downgraded or in the case of the section between Bedford and Cambridge, removed altogether.

The first tentative steps towards the delivery of the full East-West route were taken in 2016 when a major upgrade of the existing railway line from Oxford to Bicester was completed. The upgrade involved doubling the railway between Oxford and Bicester and the construction of a new section of track between Bicester and the Chiltern Mainline. The project also involved the construction of 2 new stations, one at Oxford Parkway and another at Bicester Village.

The upgrades and new infrastructure allowed Chiltern Railways to begin operating Oxford to London Marylebone services on the Chiltern Mainline. Services initially began operating from Oxford Parkway in October 2015 and then from Oxford in December 2016.

This first phase of what has since become East-West Rail was funded through a partnership between Network Rail and Chiltern Railways, with Network Rail providing the initial £250m funding, which was to be paid back via a “facility charge”. The charge was to be paid over a period of 30 years, initially paid by Chiltern Railways which is owned by Arriva UK. However this franchise is due to come to an end in 2022 and it is uncertain if the railway will be re-franchised, as the outbreak Covid19 has forced the government to look again at the franchise system as a whole.

Work on £760m second phase began in 2020 when Network Rail started to undertake preparatory works along the corridor from Bicester to Bletchley. Phase 2 involves building a new station at Winslow, partial re-building of Bletchley flyover, construction of new high-level platforms at Bletchley and installation of new tracks on part of the old Varsity Line between Bicester and Bletchley via Claydon Junction.

A key element of phase 2 which is now well underway is the partial rebuilding of the Bletchley Flyover. Built in 1959 to carry the Varsity Line over the West Coast Main Line, it was later closed to passenger traffic in 1968 and then to goods traffic in 1993, since then the flyover has remained unused.

Now Network Rail is replacing 14 of the 37 spans which make up the flyover in order to bring the structure up to modern standards. Since April 2020 Network Rail has been working to remove sections of the flyover, some of which weighed 295 tonnes. 8 sections that crossed the WCML required the closure of the railway in May 2020, however, the remaining spans were dismantled without the need for any further closures. 

 Span lifted out of Bletchley flyover - East West Rail project 

Speaking in May 2020 Tim Shoveller, managing director for Network Rail’s North West and Central region, said: “This is a major milestone for East West Rail - a new railway which will transform connectivity and journey times across the heart of the country. It promises to provide a greener, low carbon transport system which will bring huge benefits to passengers and businesses - driving economic growth and creating opportunities for housing and new jobs.”

Work will continue through 2021 to rebuild sections of the flyover and build new high-level platforms at Bletchley, It is expected that this will be completed by 2022. Once the works at Bletchley have been complete Network Rail will focus on the installation of new tracks between Bicester and Claydon Junction. Then in 2023 new tracks will be laid between Claydon Junction and Bletchley.

East-West Rail: mothballed section of railway between Bicester and Bletchley
Network Rail

Work to install and upgrade signalling and communications systems will begin in 2023 and be completed by 2024. Once this is complete Network Rail will be able to move on to the testing and commissioning phase, when it is hoped that train testing will begin.

Phase 2 is estimated to be completed by 2025 allowing services to operate between Oxford and Bedford for the first time since sections of the Varsity Line were closed in the 1960s. It is proposed that there will be 2 trains per hour from Oxford to Milton Keynes, 1 train per hour between Oxford and Bedford and 1 train an hour between Milton Keynes and Aylesbury.

The next phase of East-West Rail will be the most costly and challenging to complete, as parts of the Varsity Line between Bedford and Cambridge which was closed in the 1960s have been built upon.

In January 2020 Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps announced that the preferred route between Bedford and Cambridge had been selected. The preferred option which was chosen will run from Bedford Station heading northeast to a new station at Tempsford, the route will then head east to another new station to be constructed at Cambourne, from there the route will head south of Cambridge where it will connect into the existing line into Cambridge railways station.

Preferred option, route E

The preferred option (route E) has now moved to the public consultation stage, those wishing to have their say can do so here. Once the final route has been decided detailed design work carried out and then funding will have to be sought. There's no firm date for the start of construction, but it is hoped that the line could be open by 2030, allowing passenger trains to operate directly from Oxford to Cambridge for the first time since 1960s.


Twitter - Facebook - Youtube