The RailStaff Awards 2020

Sharon Willis

Said the following about Three Bridges to Brighton Project Team:

“The challenge:

• Nine-day blockade to carry out major engineering work to improve service performance on Brighton Main Line

• First major upgrade to the line between Brighton and Three Bridges in more than 37 years.

• Asset-related faults and incidents on the southern end of the Brighton Main Line responsible for more delays to passengers than any other part of the newly-expanded Thameslink network

• Signalling last upgraded in the early 1980s and need replacing.

• Victorian-era tunnels built in the early 1840s, and not significantly improved in almost 180 years

• Tunnels prone to leaking badly causing problems with the track and signalling

The programme of works:

• Renewing 32 kilometres of track

• 16 kilometres of conductor rail to be renewed

• Stemming leaks into the tunnels, improving drainage and preventing damage to electrical equipment

• Upgrading or replacing the third rail power system and signalling

• Replacing track and sets of points, which enable trains to switch between tracks

• Replacing fencing and improving security to deter trespassers

• Shoring-up cuttings and embankments

• £38m project spend

The benefit for railway operations:

The Brighton Main Line Improvement Project is an engineering programme carried out by Network Rail with the support of its partners, UK Government and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR - operating as Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express),, to improve the reliability of the railway through four Victorian-era railway tunnels, Haywards Heath, Patcham, Balcombe and Clayton, by reducing leaks and improving drainage, improving power systems, renewing track and signalling and enabling trains to switch tracks to improve their frequency and reliability. Our combined passenger focussed objective was to reduce the number of delays affecting that part of the line by up to 15% and reduce passenger ‘delay minutes’ by up to 15%.

Against a background of historic performance reliability issues on the southern part of the Brighton Main Line and pressure to rapidly, efficiently and effectively deliver asset resilience improvements funded by the Thameslink Resilience Programme, Network Rail successfully undertook and completed a nine-day engineering blockade, from the 16 to 24 of February 2019, delivering more than £38m of works across 26 worksites across the 30-mile footprint of the project.

This blockade was innovative in that it used a school spring half term week to deliver the works. Usually such blockades are reserved for Christmas or Easter periods, and sometimes over the Summer months where possible. The use of a school half term to deliver such a complex and integrated programme of works on a critical main line commuter artery, represents a first for the rail industry.

The work focussed on an area at the southern section of the Brighton Main Line, from Three Bridges to Brighton/Lewes, where a number of Victorian tunnels, aging track and signalling systems were causing almost half of all delays experienced with trains entering the Thameslink Core from the south.

Undertaken conventionally the work would have taken 79 weekends and over two years to deliver. Consultations were carried out with a range of stakeholders and it was concluded that it would be preferable to deliver within a longer blockade which would also provide immediate benefit from the work and would have less impact on the local economy.

The work directly affected approx. 40,000 customer journeys who use the lines daily requiring a step change in approach from that of managing a traditional engineering blockade to one of delivering a complex service delivery strategy, focused on the needs of the customer.

Without this programme of work, reliability on the Brighton Main Line would have deteriorated into the future, leading to more delays for passengers travelling between London and the south coast.

The collaborative approach between Network Rail and GTR, which focused on delivering for the customer, has been a significant success for the industry and potentially opens the way for Network Rail and other routes to consider longer mid-week blockades of the network.

Performance against planned schedules and budgets, and the safety record:

Overall the planned engineering work was delivered on time with a right time handback, and an excellent first morning’s peak for GTR (at 11am GTR PPM was at 85%). BBC journalists in place at 05.00 on Monday morning at Brighton Station possibly hoping to report problems with the service had nothing to report. The social media and customer feedback on the passenger handling were very positive.

Delivering such a quantum of work throughout the closed section over nine days enabled more efficient delivery with typically one mobilisation and one demobilisation of works, instead of one for each of the 79 weekends if delivered traditionally.

There was a significant safety benefit given the reduced number of possession set ups and handbacks (i.e. risks of staff setting out possession limit boards placing detonators and earthing straps) in addition to reducing the risks around miscommunication (and therefore potential accident/error) between Signaller-PICOP and PICOP to ES for set up and handback. Further safety benefits were derived in providing longer overall hours or daylight for teams to work in.

Over the nine days only one minor accident was reported, which was an operative assisting a driver of a van in a nearby field which had become bogged down in mud. Using planks to try to free the vehicle a spinning wheel had ejected the plank at speed into the operative leg.

The complexity of the engineering involved, and in particular any conditions and circumstances that were unique to the entry:

Because of the complexity of the project, the impact on large numbers of passengers and the commitment to deliver on time, a Programme Management Office was set up 18 months ahead to plan the work taking place. Planning ahead enabled the team to select engineering works that could be safely integrated together, whilst making use of every mile of the closed line.

The principal works included a new track and S&C layout installed at Balcombe Tunnel Junction and the renewal of the majority of lineside signalling equipment between Haywards Heath and Preston Park. The widespread geographic area (approx. 30 miles of closed railway) also provided a significant opportunity to build a wider programme of other critical works, such as drainage & tunnel works, conductor rail renewals, wet bed & track defect removals and a host of station works including platform refurbishments and footbridge renewals. In total there were 26eparate sites of work during the nine-days encompassing enhancements, renewals and maintenance activity. There was a key directive that customers should notice an improved or enhanced station environment on their return following the blockade.

Core Works:

• Balcombe Tunnel Junction – 8-point ends of S&C and a new layout removing an unreliable switch diamond to a more robust layout with Imbera Clamp Lock points. The new layout also required several signals to be moved which were converted to LED signal heads at the same time.

• Haywards Heath to Preston Park, lineside signalling equipment renewal. Upgrade of the old 40-year unreliable cabling with new diverse/resilient cabling installed as part of the Siemens Westplex system. This also included Signal head conversion to LED and track circuit upgrades.

Secondary works (including accelerated renewals):

• Balcombe Station Footbridge renewal

• Plumpton – Cooksbridge various track works, conductor rail renewals, wet bed removals

• Clayton Tunnel – Completion of six-foot enhanced drainage works (track renewal had been completed in previous weekend blocks)

• Haywards Heath Drainage works

• Wivelsfield Station platform renewal

Success factors were:

• Review accelerated renewals by geography, identify what work can be safely integrated

• Set out and plan well in advance

• Create a programme feel for the constituent works, getting teams together to analyse each other’s plans

• Early engagement with customers and stakeholders to communicate the need for the work, when the railway would be closed and the travel options available to them, to keep them moving, including enabling behaviour change amongst the commuter base

• Consider busing, parking and support staff operations to make those travel options as painless as possible to the travelling public (e.g. coaches for longer journeys, USB ports, wi-fi, provision of free tea, coffee and snacks)

• Do not underestimate the smaller stations work in terms of opportunity for reputation or community engagement

• Risk and contingency management – plan for risks to happen

• Enforce rigour and discipline for accurate worksite and milestone reporting

With a longer blockade, the engineering teams felt a more quality approach to work had been undertaken.

Overall the Engineering programme completed most of the planned works, on or before time and with zero service affecting failures (from newly installed assets) in the first week of operation. The only item of work that was lost was the Patcham Tunnel track renewal which was expended following commissioning issues with the new Westplex signalling system which required longer wheels free testing and decision made to protect the overall blockade handback and return to traffic on the Monday 25th February. The track renewals were ‘opportunity’ works (scheduled for CP6) so no immediate disbenefit or performance of the network was affected by not undertaking the renewal.

The Rail Minister Andrew Jones wrote to John Halsall, Network Rail, route managing director, (south east) and Steve White, GTR chief operating officer, describing what a significant achievement had been undertaken by the industry. The Rail Minister noted:

“The efforts made by all stakeholders in delivering this successful programme has shown that the industry can bring together planning, engineering, communications, passenger management and operational resilience and embed them in the heart of what we want to collectively achieve for the railway and public. It must surely be the model on which future temporary closures are based”.“