Always expect the unexpected. It is good advice for any railway project, particularly one being undertaking at short notice, as Stobart Rail recently discovered on a project for Manchester Metrolink. Fortunately, the experienced management team was up to the task.

In February, Stobart Rail was asked to tender for a package of work between Bury and Manchester Victoria on phase one of the Metrolink development. These lines had been converted from main line railway routes and originally opened in April 1992.

The works consisted of a 674 metre skim dig with 700 metres of new, continuous welded rail, the installation of new adjustment switches and a pair of insulated rail joints, and then tamp and stress the track over a distance of 975 metres. It sounded simple. However, there were to be no engineering trains involved and the rail would be provided in 60ft lengths that would need to be welded up in the same 51-hour disruptive possession during which the rest of the work had to be completed. It was becoming more of a challenge.

Planning for success

Stobart Rail was successful in its bid and, once contract documentation was exchanged, a project team was set up. Keith Winnery, Stobart’s rail director, decided to appoint Will McMurray as project manager for the scheme, as Will’s reputation for attention to detail should ensure the successful delivery of the project. Little did Keith know how important that decision was to be.

Will’s first task was to set up a procurement schedule for all materials and confirm that all the various components that would be required were available. Next, as vehicle access points are limited on this section of line, an agreement was negotiated with the East Lancashire Railway. This allowed Stobart to remove a fence for temporary access to the Metrolink tracks and the ELR set aside a lay-down area within its own yard for the project to use. In this and other ways the ELR management was most accommodating and went out of its way to assist the Stobart Rail team.

Programme timescales were extremely tight and, with no contingency available, many risk mitigation measures were considered and implemented including having extra resources, plant and labour available. A site meeting was held, attended by everyone involved in the running of the project, from directors to plant operators and safety representatives. All were provided with rosters detailing the plant and labour to be used on the disruptive possession and with sketches detailing the position of all plant throughout the works. Everyone was encouraged to put forward ideas to make things easier and many of those suggestions were implemented. The different work teams were shown the “bigger picture”, so they were aware of all the other operations on site.

In detail

The plan was that, on midweek nights up to the main possession weekend, the 78 sixty-foot lengths of rail would be run out and positioned so that they could be flash butt welded during the main possession whilst other works were in progress. Once welded, they would be dragged into place and thimbled into their housings once the new sleepers were laid.
On the weekend of the main 51-hour disruptive possession, the first task would be the disconnection of all electrical bonding and the S&T bonding at both insulated blocking joints. The adjustment switches, impedance bonds and ATS beacons would be removed.

Task lighting would be set up and the old track cut up into 60ft panels to be removed by means of a tandem lift onto trailers connected to a Unimog. This would free up the track bed for a skim dig using a Rail Bug excavator and a road-rail bulldozer fitted with a Trimble 3D guidance system. These would be supported by other road-rail excavators with trailers and two eight-tonne dumpers to keep the excavation time to a minimum.

On completion of the excavation, three road rail vehicles (RRVs), fitted with sleeper bailers, would begin to place the 900 new sleepers. Meanwhile, the 60-foot long rail sections would be flash butt welded together further along the site and then dragged, using specially-made rollers, into position alongside the excavation to be thimbled in once the sleepers were ready.

Crisis talks

Unfortunately, on the Thursday prior to the main possession, Stobart Rail were notified that the flash butt welder was unavailable due to problems with failed welds. An emergency meeting was held with the Metrolink management team and plans were drawn up to deliver the project using thirteen welding teams which would be supplied at very short notice by Sky Blue. The whole team responded positively toward what could easily have been a “show stopper”, and the planned programme was altered to suit this different approach. Fish plates, fassetta clamps and bonding cables had to be procured for a minimum of 20 joints and the critical rail temperature would require monitoring as there was a possibility that the rails would not be stressed prior to the site being handing back to traffic.

Once the sleepers were in place, two RRVs with rail beam attachments started placing the rails. Following rail installation, four teams were mobilised:
– Team A installed “biscuits” and clipped up using two e-clip applicators;
– Team B installed fishplates and fassetta clamps on ALL joints prior to tamping;
– Team C used RRVs to ballast up;
– Team D, made up of engineers and track quality supervisors, oversaw tamping to compact the ballast.

After tamping, the 13 gangs of welders were spread throughout the 700 metre length of the project, welding up joints as soon as they became available.

Additional difficulties

The location of the work also caused complications. All of the work was carried out under OLE, which in certain areas was extremely low due to the A56 and Manchester Old Road Tunnel. This reduced the project team’s ability to load and unload trailers.

Severe curves through the tunnel made the installation of the sleepers and rail difficult, compounded by the presence of drainage catchpits in the six-foot and a concrete wall in the cess.

To add to the logistical difficulties of this operation, the same access was being used to facilitate works further along the track at Besses O’ Th’ Barn. This separate project was replacing approximately 280 sleepers and 7000 ferrules, as well as adding new ballast, on another 800 metre section of line.

Even the weather was against them. It poured down on the Sunday, conditions were horrendous and normal movement became difficult.

However, despite everything, the possession was handed back on time with all the works completed apart from the stressing, which was carried out on the following weekend. The whole project team heaved a huge sigh of relief as what could easily have been a disaster was turned around, due in part to Will McMurray paying attention to the details.