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Bam's Highland rail upgrade tackles make-or-break 10 days

Bam Nuttall’s early engagement on a vital part of line between Edinburgh and Inverness enabled it to fine-tune a high-pressure 10-day possession of the track.

Project: Aberdeen to Inverness Improvement Project – Phase One
Client: Network Rail
Contract value: £35m
Region: Scotland
Main contractor: Bam Nuttall
Start date: February 2017
Completion date: December 2017

“We’ve been looking at this project for about two years, designing and planning it,” explains Bam Nuttall project manager Gerrie Van Saasen.

“[It’s] geared around getting the points in [for the new railway] over five weekend possessions, and then during the blockade we tie it all in.”

Construction News is visiting Bam Nuttall’s site at Forres in Moray, around 40 km east of Inverness.

It’s building a new station and extending the platform at Elgin – the next station on the line to the east – as well as carrying out other upgrades to track and signalling.

The project is phase one of the Aberdeen to Inverness Improvement Project, which is the first major intervention to be carried out under Transport Scotland’s Highlands Enhancement Programme, an eight-year framework launched by Network Rail with the aim of improving connectivity between Scotland’s central belt and the Highlands.

Long-term framework

The overall HEP is being procured as a nil-value eight-year framework, with the option of a two-year extension – and Bam Nuttall is acting as main contractor, carrying out upgrades to the 174 km line between Aberdeen and Inverness.

“I’ve never been in this position before with a 10-year framework,” says Bam Nuttall framework director Jerry Dickson.

“[It] allows you to get in early and deliver schemes from as early as the optioneering stage. We and Network Rail feel that early engagement, adding extra resources and time up front, will prove cost-effective later, as you can squeeze the design and construction period where the majority of the cost is.”

Bam Nuttall Highlands Enhancements Programme Forres station May 2017 2

Bam Nuttall Highlands Enhancements Programme Forres station May 2017 2

Forres station in May 2017

This is how Bam Nuttall has worked on the Aberdeen-to-Inverness project, getting involved as early as 2015 to help with outline designs, before moving on to detailed design and construction.

“Collaboration has not just been a buzzword here; it’s been absolutely essential”

Jerry Dickson, Bam Nuttall

The contractor is working alongside a number of other partners to deliver the scheme, including signalling contractor Siemens, track upgrade contractor Babcock Rail, and designers Aecom and CH2M.

“Collaboration has not just been a buzzword here; it has been absolutely essential,” Mr Dickson says.

“We have a steering group with directors from each of the partners and Network Rail, and as Bam Nuttall we act as the integrator for the programme, design and construction – we’re the glue that gels everything together.

“Our strength is in the strength of our partners.”

Speedier journeys

Careful planning from the outset has certainly been needed, with the project representing a major undertaking the like of which has not been seen on the region’s railways for some time.

The existing line between Aberdeen and Inverness is primarily single track with some passing loops, with most stations only consisting of a single platform.

This translates into journey times of around two hours and 25 minutes between the two cities, with an irregular service of every two hours on average.

Transport Scotland’s High Level Output Specification for Control Period 5 specified a series of improvements to be delivered on the line by 2019. These include:

  • Introducing a half-hourly service between Aberdeen and Inverurie, on the eastern end of the line, including infrastructure capacity for a new station at Kintore.
  • Maintaining, as a minimum, existing freight access rights on the route.
  • Creating infrastructure capacity for a new station at Dalcross, which would serve Inverness Airport.
  • Introducing some additional peak services between Inverness and Elgin, on the western end of the line.

The Aberdeen-to-Inverurie upgrade is set to deliver most of the journey time improvements, double-tracking 26 km of the line, with work set to start on that in 2018 and complete before CP6 begins.

But it is the latter element of work on the western end of the line that is currently under construction, with Bam Nuttall putting in nearly two years of planning and preparation for a 10-day blockade that begins on 6 October. This marks the most critical period of the improvement project.

Bam Nuttall Highlands Enhancements Programme planning room

Bam Nuttall Highlands Enhancements Programme planning room

Extensive planning was undertaken to avoid clashes during the 10-day blockade

The contractor is carrying out a range of track and signalling upgrades, as well as improving two stations at Forres and Elgin, removing a level crossing at Forres and upgrading another at Elgin.

It is projected that these improvements will lead to a new hourly service between Inverness and Elgin from December 2018, a later last train back to Inverness in response to passenger demand, and increased reliability generally on the line.

In addition it will allow for – once the upgrades to the east are complete – more through services to the central belt via Aberdeen, and new Elgin-to-Aberdeen early-morning as well as late-evening services.

Building offline

The track layout at Forres, where CN is getting a tour, has allowed the station upgrade to be delivered in an unusually convenient way.

Here, the railway previously branched south, with trains running on the now-defunct Highland Railway to Perth via Boat of Garten. This legacy means the track curves to the south at Forres before straightening again, forming a semi-circular shape in the line from east to west.

To improve signalling and reliability, the team logically chose to straighten the track at Forres, presenting them with the opportunity to build the new station in its entirety ‘offline’, track and all. The team has installed a double loop to create two platforms at Forres, replacing the single-platform station.

“The existing line forms a bit of a bubble,” Mr Van Saasen says. “So we’ve been able to do it all offline, which is unusual, and it’s day-shift work as well. For me, this is paradise.”

There is also a level crossing immediately to the east of the station, providing access to a number of businesses on the northern side of the line, including Benromach Distillery. As part of efficiency and safety upgrades, the team is removing this level crossing, replacing it with a bridge over the railway to the west of the new station.

It has also been able to build this bridge in advance, away from the live track, with its new road surfaced.

“We’ve been able to do it all offline, which is unusual, and it’s day-shift work as well. For me, this is paradise”

Gerrie Van Saasen, Bam Nuttall

Planning for the scheme has centred on a 10-day blockade of the line, beginning on 6 October, which will see the team remove the old track, demolish the existing station, connect up the ‘offline’ rail in the new station at the Forres, and test and commission all of the systems.

Leading up to this, the team has used five disruptive possessions. “In each possession we targeted one of the points – two at Forres and two at Elgin – and then a short one to get the GSMR mast up in Elgin for the signalling,” Mr Van Saasen says.

“And then during the blockade, you’ve already got the connections and the points constructed, so you just put the line in in-between. It is all geared around getting the points in [during possessions], and then during the blockade we tie it all in.”

Bam Nuttall Highlands Enhancements Programme Elgin double loop

Bam Nuttall Highlands Enhancements Programme Elgin double loop

Bam Nuttall is building a double loop in the track at Elgin

At Elgin, the existing station’s single platform will be extended, while the town’s level crossing will be renewed to make it safer.

Preparatory work here on the live rails has had to be carried out during night shifts, with just four hours of productive work each night.

“You’ve basically got a seven-day week, with four hours a night,” Mr Van Saasen says. “You get your blue-collar labour in about two hours before the shift, set up and ready, and as soon as the bell dings you start for four hours and just have to move as quickly and safely as possible, getting as much done as you can.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s difficult when you start – there hasn’t been a lot of rail work around here, so when we involved local subcontractors and labour, you have to get them into the mindset that it’s full-on for four hours a night.”

The signal boxes at Forres and Elgin will also both be demolished to make way for new signalling systems, with a token key system still in use up to the blockade. At this point, the signalman must physically receive a token from the train driver before being able to release the train safely – a safe system, but not an efficient one.

Blockade pinch-points

Main works commenced in Forres in February this year, with Elgin beginning in April, and work on both sites has continued apace in anticipation of the blockade this month.

During the blockade, there are two pinch-points, where work will be focused.

At Forres, the new link road connecting the north side of the railway to the A96, replacing the level crossing, will pass through the platform of the existing station. This part of the work is the “biggest thing” to think about at Forres, Mr Van Saasen says.

As soon as the blockade begins, the team will remove the track and sleepers, demolish the stations and platform, and punch the link road through to join the already-built junction on the south side.

In Elgin, the level crossing is the crucial part of the project, posing a big logistical challenge.

Bam Nuttall Highlands Enhancements Programme Forres station aerial

Bam Nuttall Highlands Enhancements Programme Forres station aerial

The new station at Forres in September 2017, weeks before commissioning

“As soon as you close the level crossing, traffic becomes bumper to bumper, M25 traffic,” Mr Van Saasen says. “So actually getting material into site will be a challenge for us.

“The planning is critical – everything needs to be in early because you can’t really move once you’ve closed that crossing. Everything comes out, we leave it on site, and all the new stuff goes in. It’s a lot of work to do.”

“As soon as you close the level crossing, traffic becomes bumper to bumper, M25 traffic. So actually getting material into site will be a challenge for us”

Gerrie Van Saasen, Bam Nuttall

At the same time that Bam Nuttall is overseeing this work, Siemens will be testing and commissioning all of the cabling for the new signalling systems, with other subcontractors testing the PA systems, ticketing and CCTV at the stations, all ready to be handed back over to Network Rail in time for the end of the blockade.

“The whole job has been geared towards 6 October, basically,” Mr Van Saasen says.

Collaboration has been key, as Mr Dickson mentioned, with the early contractor involvement stage vital in ironing out any issues and identifying problems in advance.

“Our ground and site investigations were crucial,” Mr Van Saasen says. “The amount of uncharted services we found, I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

He says that Bam Nuttall has committed to using local subcontractors and labour as much as possible, but that they were a bit hesitant when contracts first went out, due to the unusually high levels of spending being proposed.

“Sometimes it took a phone call from me or a meeting before they’d engage with us, but once they got a flavour for it, it’s gone well,” Mr Van Saasen says. “I don’t have a bad word to say about any of my subcontractors.”

Community engagement has also been an important pillar of the project, with numerous line-side neighbours in both Forres and Elgin. Stuart MacKay, communications manager for the project, has played an important role here, conducting regular site tours in off-road vehicles around the site to show residents and other stakeholders the progress of works – the same tour that CN receives.

All is going well ahead of the blockade, then, with the final countdown under way as we walk around site.

It’s been years in the planning, but this project’s success will hinge on the 10 days beginning on 6 October.

Mind Matters: Mental health training

Bam Nuttall has embraced mental health first aid training onsite in Forres, following CN’s Mind Matters campaign launch earlier this year.

The contractor’s CEO, Steve Fox, wrote for CN of his own experiences with mental health issues, and the firm has been keen to build on this with its workforce.

One of the project’s labour suppliers, Venesky Brown, has provided workshops for its staff, with Bam Nuttall staff also participating.

“We’re committed to improving the mental health of our workforce and beyond, and by facilitating mental health first aid workshops we aim to de-stigmatise and educate around the subject,” says the firm’s operations manager Bob Mitchell.

The 12-hour course covers topics such as attitudes to mental health issues, the effect of alcohol and drugs on mental health, suicide, listening skills, depression, and anxiety, among other things.

It’s helped staff on this project, with its focus on one highly pressurised 10-day window, to recognise the signs of stress or poor mental health and help their fellow employees.

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