Waiting for a train - UK rail infrastructure improvements

Materials World magazine
26 Nov 2013

Even the best made travel plans can be thwarted by improvement works. Each weekend there is a flurry of cancellations all attributed to the ever-ambiguous engineering works. But before you head onto the replacement bus service cursing, spare a thought for the engineers of Network Rail.

Paul Starbrook from the UK Department for Transport explains the core of the country’s problem, ‘Our main intercity network was built to serve a Victorian economy, not a 21st Century one. Historic underinvestment has left the railway ill-prepared to meet soaring demand.’ There is a hefty list of projects currently underway, all of which are essential for keeping the wheels moving for the one billion passengers making journeys across the network each year. Starbrook explains, ‘Between 2014–2019, Network Rail will spend more than £38bln running and expanding our railway. Among other benefits, this investment programme will deliver 140,000 extra seats on peak services by the end of this decade. We will also undergo a major electrification programme and a multi-billion pound deal to replace intercity rolling stock.’

Alongside all this network-wide work, major developments are ongoing with London and the South East’s Crossrail, the Thameslink route and the Northern Hub. Here is a selection of just some of the improvement works being carried out across the UK.

Steel supply deal
Over the next five years, the UK branch of Tata Steel is to supply Network Rail with aproximately 140,000 tonnes of steel track from its Scunthorpe plant as part of ongoing upgrades to the UK’s rail network. This deal will account for more than 95% of the network’s rail needs and will include Tata’s heat-treated HPrail grad, which is metallurgically engineered to offer improved wear-resistance and rolling contact fatigue to reduce costs across the rail’s lifetime. The rails are suitable for high-speed and heavy-duty lines, as the material offers reduced grinding frequency as well as extended life in areas where rolling contact fatigue resistance is the main cause of degradation.

Electrical control updated
Network Rail is the largest single consumer of energy in the UK, using around 3.2TWh of electricity each year. This is used to power trains as well as signals and telecoms. A contract to replace 16 separate control systems, some of which date back to the 1950s, has been awarded to UK-based telent. The firm will install supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems that are being rolled-out nationally, replacing older electromechanical control panels with video display unit-based systems – a less expensive and easier-to-adjust alternative to full control panels.

Hawarden railway bridge
Built in 1887, this iconic bridge near the Welsh/ English border now sees thousands of passengers across the River Dee every day. To keep pace with growing footfall, the bridge will be strengthened with steel plates. At the same time, the bridge will also be sandblasted to remove old paint layers and repainted to protect against corrosion, further prolonging the structure’s lifespan.

Peterborough station
Over the 2013 Christmas period, the station will undergo 80 hours of maintenance work to install a new signalling system. The system will control and monitor the flow of trains through the station and over the recently added platforms. The station is a major interchange through which more than four million passengers each year travel on a mixture of commuter routes and long-distance services.

Selby Swing Bridge
Built in 1889, ageing Selby Swing Bridge in North Yorkshire is finally due its biggest overhaul to date, after earlier works were postponed when a landslide damaged tracks at nearby Hatfield Colliery. This put pressure on the network and prevented engineers from closing the bridge for works earlier on. While trains are not running during this rescheduled maintenance period, Network Rail is taking the chance to repair level crossings and tracks in the surrounding area.

Highland mainline
More than £2m has been invested in improving the Highland mainline in Scotland. As well as improving tracks and signalling infrastructure, the project taking place this autumn will also strengthen earthworks, improve drainage, cut back vegetation and stabilise rock faces to help prepare the line for winter conditions

One of the most significant UK infrastructure projects to date is due for completion in 2019 – London’s Crossrail. The new lines will cut journey times across London and ease congestion by raising the city’s transport capacity by 10% – the largest increase in passenger capacity since World War II.

Between 2013–2015, construction work on the project will be at its peak. This work will include 42km of new tunnels dug using eight 1,000-tonne tunnel boring machines (TBMs) beneath the city at a rate of 100 metres each week. The 150-metrelong machines are 7.1 metres in diameter, allowing them to create concrete-sealed tunnels 6.2 metres in diameter. The 4.5 million tonnes of excavated material will be shipped to Wallasea Island, in Essex, where it will be used to build a new nature reserve. Six of the machines are designed to travel throught the clay sand and gravel between Royal Oak and Pudding Mill Lane. The others must pass through the chalky Thames Tunnel and are currently undergoing factory testing to ready them for their mixed-shield journey.

One of the project’s most significant benefits to passengers will be a reduction in journey time from central London to Heathrow, from 55 to 32 minutes. The expanded capacity provided by the link will benefit passengers across London’s network, as other busy stations will no longer be used as interchanges for cross-city travellers.

How the project will shape up over the coming year:
2014 At the start of the year, Crossrail’s eighth and final TBM will be launched from Pudding Mill Lane in east London. By the end of the year, almost all tunnelling will be completed. The contract for Crossrail’s rolling-stock will also be awarded this year.

2015–2017 Stations and tunnels will continue to take shape and all existing rail network to be used will undergo a major upgrade to cope with expanded capacity and create new platforms.

2017 The new rolling stock will start to replace existing suburban trains between Liverpool Street and Shenfield.

2018 Services will start to travel through the new central London tunnelled section of Crossrail in late 2018.

2019 By the end of the year, the full Crossrail service will be operating.