The tall chimneys that marked the presence of the huge cement works at Northfleet were a major feature of the North Kent skyline for many years. As the largest cement producing plant in the UK, the works was historically also a major rail customer until its original connection and merry-go-round system fell out of use in the early 1990s. Fuel (in the form of coal) and gypsum came in by the trainload, and cement ran out around the country. This was a major industrial site providing employment for many people.
Following closure of the works in 2008, and demolition of the iconic chimneys on 28 March 2010, the site became a flat and empty landscape surrounded by chalk faces and the river Thames. One or two buildings remained, forming a cement import terminal. There was a dock area, some limited activity, and a strangely isolated office block in the middle of all the emptiness.
That office block, however, was to become the hub of a project organisation that would produce new railway infrastructure and new business for rail, marking a major regeneration of the site. There would also be great environmental benefits and a gain for British wildlife.
The site is owned by Lafarge Cement UK, which has recognised the potential for alternative future uses for their former manufacturing site. Crossrail is ready to start its tunnel boring machines to commence the core work of that huge infrastructure project, but some time ago realised that there would need to be an effective way of disposing of the waste material. Coupled to this, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) realised that there was a fantastic opportunity to work with a major construction project to provide enhanced habitats for the feathered population of the Thames and the South-East. Together we have the Northfleet Reconnection Project, and a fascinating rail business expansion.
Crossrail has, of course, a high political profile. Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, officially started the first tunnel boring machine in March 2012 and the Northfleet facility had to be, and was, available to receive trains by then.
Lafarge has leased part of their site to Crossrail Limited, which has enabled them to fund the design and construction work associated with the reconnection of the Northfleet cement sidings to the national network. The private sidings will initially be used as the destination for trains carrying material excavated from the Crossrail tunnel bores. This will be temporarily stockpiled before being transferred to barges for onward shipment along the Thames for use in the RSPB Wallasea Island Wild Coast project. Five train paths in each direction per day from April 2012 have been timetabled to transport the excavated material from the tunnel portal at Westbourne Park for the duration of the tunnelling works. Crossrail is also considering other uses for the Northfleet sidings in support of the tunnel construction operation.
Following completion of Crossrail tunnel construction, the sidings will revert back to Lafarge which has a long term plan for the ship-based importation and rail distribution of aggregates to London and the South East, in support of their existing cement import terminal.
Preparation and planning
A Third Party / Asset Protection agreement was put in place between Lafarge and Network Rail, and the project was given investment authority to cover Network Rail costs. Lafarge elected to project manage the works itself, and appointed Balfour Beatty Rail as their main contractor for the delivery of all stages of the proposed works. Main sub-contractors were Parsons Brinckerhoff, Birse Rail and Signalling Solutions Ltd. The Network Rail project teams came from the Core Crossrail Project Management unit and the South Eastern Asset Protection Team. Other contractors involved were Railway Electrical Services of Ilkeston, K T Price and Chunnel Group. Rail consultancy services were provided to the Lafarge in-house project manager by Robert Skene Consulting, which developed the Lafarge outline brief to establish the initial outline design for the project.
The total cost of the connection and sidings was approximately £13 million and the target completion date of 1 February 2012 for completion of physical works and commissioning was achieved.
The scope of the project affecting Network Rail infrastructure was the installation of a new crossover and turnout on the North Kent lines to the west of Northfleet station and all associated points heating, third rail, signalling and telecommunications. The installation was complicated by the need to undertake a Solid State Interlocking boundary change in order to create enough capacity on the Northfleet interlocking to accommodate the reinstated connection.
Engineering access to infrastructure in this area is limited due to the intensity of the North Kent commuter services, the proximity of Springhead Junction (used by HS1 services between St Pancras and Faversham) and the need to preserve access into Hoo Junction sidings for engineering trains. Any possession over-runs would have a significant impact in terms of minutes delay.
The detailed works included the installation of the crossover and turnout to give access to the new railway being built within the site. These main line works included the erection of one new signal and the addition of a feather on an existing mainline signal. There was considerable work required on signalling and signalling control systems as functionality had to be transferred from one interlocking to another to allow it to be installed within one adjacent interlocking. Coupled to this were the need for telecommunications work, civil engineering for structure works and considerable electrification and plant tasks on power supplies, traction contact system arrangements and switch heating. This was all undertaken on a very busy railway with quite limited access and a high risk of massive disruption to peak hour London commuting services.
Senior Project Manager for Network Rail, Richard Anderson, reviewed the project and pointed out that much of its success grew from effective project management control, maintained through the project, aided by close co-operation between the units and companies undertaking the work. Effective application of the T-minus process, the continuous update of the project action/issues list and weekly telephone conferences between the project team, contractor and subcontractors to align communication and update progress all contributed to the delivery.
The works themselves involved considerable co-operation between the various railway engineering and operating functions and showed that, while to an outsider it might have seemed a simple addition of a siding connection, it was in fact a very complex process!
The connection is on the site of the old rail access to the cement works. However, one of the first challenges was that standards have changed considerably since the original connection was designed and installed in the late 1960s and therefore, despite the connection being almost like for like, several standards compliance issues had to be tackled.
In adition, the connection was being made after the line had been re-signalled and no passive provision for the new siding was available. The site effectively fell on the edge of two interlocking boundaries, and neither of these had the capacity to take the new infrastructure on board. The interlocking inventories therefore had to be re-arranged to allow the new connection to be incorporated onto one interlocking. Thus the project was faced with considerable design work in both the signalling and telecommunication fields, together with the human factor protocols at the Ashford control centre.
The multi-functional challenge was met with the participation of several contractors and consultants while Network Rail took a project management role assisted by both Southern Asset Protection and Crossrail project management. Lafarge appointed Balfour Beatty Rail as main contractor. In turn, the signal engineering work was subcontracted to Signalling Solutions Ltd and Invensys. Telecommunications work was undertaken by both Parsons Brinckerhoff and the Network Rail direct labour delivery unit. Electric traction engineering was dealt with by Sonic Rail Services.
Form B designs were developed over the summer of 2011 and phase one of the construction took place during two full weekend possessions in September 2011. Track works for the junction and the crossover were installed, together with the electric traction equipment and the signalling structural aspects. Novel to the area was the installation of in-bearer clamp locks on the main line pointwork.
Signalling and telecommunications design then continued, whilst Balfour Beatty Rail moved on with the provision of the infrastructure to allow access to the old cement works site where the train off-loading facilities would be provided. Arrival and departure loops were installed, with bollard lighting to define safe walking routes. These loops feed the private line down to the two sidings and runround facilities at the quayside.
The second and final construction phase of the project was scheduled to take place in the next available possession in January 2012 and so, in preparation, the newly installed trackwork was clipped up and detected.
On the 21 January this final phase commenced with the major signalling work getting underway, including the provision of new signalling power supplies to feed the junction equipment. A continuous possession from Saturday night to the Monday morning was successfully completed, with the railway being reopened to traffic on time and the access to the new terminal ready for use.
Nigel Rees, who project managed the works on behalf of Lafarge, believes the excellent working relationships established between the client, designers, contractors, Network Rail and Crossrail created a model of partnership project delivery which was key to its safe and successful completion on time and within budget. He also pointed out that the reinstatement of the rail link marks a major stage in the regeneration of the site and welcomed Crossrail as its first user following the end of cement manufacture.
The infrastructure now sits completed, ready for the official opening and the arrival of the first train of excavated material. The birds at Wallasea are waiting for that as well.