Impressive projects such as the Almonte Viaduct show off the sort of expertise contractors will have to demonstrate if they are to win work on HS2. With more overseas firms showing interest in bidding on UK rail projects, competition will become increasingly fierce.
Of all the places to be having a discussion about Sir David Higgins and his plans for High Speed 2, standing 90 m above a river in rural Spain atop a partly built viaduct might not immediately spring to mind.
Yet the Almonte Viaduct, a 996 m-long bridge over the Almonte River some 340 km south-west of Madrid not far from the Portuguese border, offers a much more appropriate backdrop for this conversation than you’d expect.
Spanish contractor FCC is tackling the challenge of building the viaduct. At the same time, the company is preparing to bid on work for HS2, in a joint venture with Laing O’Rourke and Murphy, which will be known as LFM.
The viaduct is a highly impressive piece of engineering. It will be the longest for high-speed rail on the planet once finished – as well as the third longest arc bridge in the world behind Krk Bridge in Croatia and Wanxian Bridge in China.
The project exemplifies just some of the problems contractors will have to tackle to win work on HS2, the UK’s largest planned infrastructure scheme.
So how will FCC, Laing O’Rourke and Murphy combine to bring their experience in high-speed rail to the UK market?
Perched on top the part-completed viaduct gives a sense of the immense challenges the FCC team faced when working on the project.
Even below deck level, we are more than 90 m from the surface of the Almonte River below, and there are extraordinary sheer drops on both sides of the 384 m-long arch.
The viaduct carries part of the line that was originally intended to link Madrid to Lisbon. The Portuguese section of the railway was cancelled in 2012 due to budget constraints, meaning the Spanish section will now terminate at Badajoz, around 110 km from where we are standing.
The project for this particular section, which is being built by FCC for client ADIF, Spain’s state-owned equivalent of Network Rail, is worth €81.7m (£58.1m), while the viaduct project itself is valued at €45.9m (£32.6m).
“Demanding aspects of the project have required SMEs to help larger contractors deliver innovative solutions – something HS2 is also keen to champion”
Work started on site in February 2011, with a completion date set for June 2016.
Project manager Pedro Cavero reveals how technically challenging the project has been - and suggests contractors will have to be innovative in their methods and radical in their thinking in delivering similar work for HS2.
Even access to the site is highly complex.
Roads had to be built in a similar manner to mountain routes, as no slope could climb at more than 10 degrees, otherwise transporting heavy machinery and cranes to the bridge’s base would have been rendered unsafe.
The sensitivity of high-speed rail components meant the team was forced to install 15 m abutments under the arch to avoid cable movement due to ground settlement. These were placed in concrete instead of the embankment to ensure their effectiveness.
SME innovation shows the way
Other demanding aspects of the project have required SMEs to help larger contractors deliver innovative solutions – something HS2 is also keen to champion.
To construct the main arches, two climbing formwork travellers were used, one on each leg of the bridge. Mr Cavero describes this as the most challenging part of the project.
FCC duly sought a partner to carry out the complex works. From among a number of bids and a wide range of proposals, only one company emerged with a suitable solution: an SME based in the north-east of Spain.
“We want to use our whole supply chain to tackle problems and improve innovation in exactly the same way”
Nadia Savage, Laing O’Rourke
HS2 has already said it will benchmark contractors on their use of SMEs and that it wants at least 60 per cent of contract opportunities in the supply chain for phase one to be fulfilled by smaller firms.
FCC partnered with the University of Toronto to carry out a full aerodynamic study of the bridge’s design, while materials used for the project were sourced from within Spain, rather than from abroad.
Technical challenges such as these highlight the importance of innovation within the supply chain – and FCC says it is likely to take a similar approach in the UK.
One area where the company’s approach has differed from HS2’s expectations is in the method of work.
HS2 has so far talked up the benefits of offsite manufacturing, and has said contractors’ ability to use building information modelling and modular offsite assembly will be among the crucial areas it looks at when appointing contractors and measuring performance.
But at the Almonte Viaduct, the majority of the casting for the decking has been done directly on site, rather than off.
Partnerships prepare for battle
However, FCC’s partnership with Laing O’Rourke is set to address the offsite requirements of HS2.
Laing O’Rourke project director of high-speed rail Nadia Savage tells Construction News she is particularly keen to show what offsite manufacturing can do on HS2, particularly as so many viaducts and bridges will be required for the project.
“The 90 m-high viaduct emphasises just how challenging the technical aspects of HS2 will be”
She goes on to describe how impressed she’s been with FCC’s collaboration with its regional supply chain.
“The usage of the climbing formwork travellers is a perfect example of how we want to use SMEs on high-speed rail projects in the UK,” she says.
“We want to use our whole supply chain to tackle problems and improve innovation in exactly the same way.”
The LFM JV is just one of several consortia with an international flavour formed in recent months to bid on HS2 work.
In May, Bouygues Travaux Publics, Sir Robert McAlpine and VolkerFitzpatrick joined forces to bid for work under the ‘Align’ joint venture.
And in June, Carillion, Eiffage and Kier announced that they would also form a joint venture to target work on high-speed rail in the UK.
Ms Savage is confident the LFM partners’ similarities and close working relationship, as well as FCC’s high-speed rail experience here in Spain, can help the JV win work ahead of its rivals.
“It’s all about collaborating to take the best bits of best practice from each of the JV partners to make it as strong as it can possibly be”
Nadia Savage, Laing O’Rourke
“All of the partners in the JV have a similar structure in regards to direct employment – I think we have a very similar philosophy,” she says.
“It’s all about collaborating to take the best bits of best practice from each of the JV partners to make it as strong as it can possibly be – not all joint ventures start out like that.”
Both Murphy and FCC have particular expertise in tunnelling for rail, with Murphy having recently completed a £200m contract for the Thames Tunnel as part of Crossrail, in a separate joint venture with Hochtief.
Looking up at the 90 m-high viaduct from beneath its base emphasises just how challenging the technical aspects of HS2 will be for UK contractors.
As preparations for delivering HS2 gather pace, these joint ventures will have plenty to do as they position themselves to win work.
Drawing lessons from international high-speed rail schemes like Spain’s Almonte Viaduct could go a long way to helping them succeed.