Just look for a moment at a track layout in what we sometimes call a ‘modern railway’. The site is at Norton Bridge, some five miles from Stafford on the West Coast Main Line (WCML.) To the north is Crewe, to the south is Stafford and going off to the east is a two track branch to Stone linking the WCML to the almost parallel line to Stoke- on-Trent.

There isn’t much around Norton Bridge – a few houses, a couple of farms nearby with the word ‘Norton’ in their name. The only bridge is the bridge over the railway.

Norton Bridge has a station – in name only. Since the footbridge was removed from the island platform, isolating it from the outside world, the only ‘train’ to call at Norton Bridge is a bus!

Something needs to be done

At this location, the WCML has a pair of slow lines and a pair of fast lines. So it’s Up, Down, Up, Down. This is the sort of layout that makes movements across from the Down Slow to the branch difficult and disruptive.

Coming off the Down Slow, with a line speed of 75mph, a train has to drop its speed to 30mph and wind its way across the Up Slow, the Down Fast, seek refuge in the Up and Down Recess and wait its turn to cross over the path of the Up Fast before making it to the Down Main of the branch. So, in the process of doing this, a move that is timetabled to occur every hour, the whole of the WCML has been well and truly stitched up. Every line stopped – and this is on a modern railway.

Moves in the opposite direction are pretty much as disruptive, apart from the Down Slow getting off scot free.

Something clearly needs to be done.

Additional capacity

Something is being done, and in a very big way, with Stafford and the surrounding area (including Norton Bridge) benefitting from a £250 million improvement scheme, care of the Stafford Area Improvements Programme (SAIP).

The scope of the works is impressive, as is the way in which the contractual arrangements are being organised – but more of that later.

But apart from the constraints of the existing track layout, what are the driving forces behind the improvements?

Well, for a start, this is Britain’s busiest mainline railway, being a key artery connecting London, the Midlands, the North West and Scotland. It provides express, local, commuter and freight services, with three million passengers using it every day and numbers continuing to rise. There are 40% more passenger journeys and 60% more freight than 20 years ago and passenger demand is expected to double in the next 20 years.

The vision for SAIP is to create additional capacity to run more services – two extra trains per hour (each direction) between London Euston and the North West, one extra fast train per hour (each direction) between Manchester and Birmingham and one extra freight train per hour (each direction) through Stafford.

This increase in capacity is being delivered through a mixture of new infrastructure to reduce congestion at key pinch points in the Stafford area and timetable re-casting.

The challenges ahead?

Between Shugborough (which is about 5 miles to the London side of Stafford) and Norton Bridge, the existing signalling system is reaching the end of its operational life, bringing with it reliability issues.

Until now, there has been no long term solution, with capacity constraints and linespeed limitations on the slows between Stafford station and Crewe.

Then there is Norton Bridge itself. As Dominic Baldwin, Staffordshire Alliance manager explains: “It’s like putting traffic lights in the middle of the M6. Extend the metaphor to include contraflows and the picture should be complete.

Something needs to be done.

Stafford resignalling

So, getting down to business, what is being done? SAIP is an amalgamation of three distinct elements. The first is the delivery of linespeed improvements on the slow lines between Crewe and Norton Bridge. This will involve some minor infrastructure improvements and OLE modifications to raise linespeeds on the slow lines from 75mph to 100mph.

Phase 2 is the comprehensive resignalling of Stafford, including a revision of the Stafford station track layout, bi-directional working through platforms 4, 5 and 6 and a new 775 metre long freight recess. Train detection will be by axle counters and speed improvements, allowing 100mph running on the slow lines to be extended south from Great Bridgeford to Stafford station.

New flyover

The challenge at Norton Bridge junction will be removed via the proposed construction of a new flyover. As this is a structure that will carry both the Up and the Down slow lines, and because it will do this maintaining 100mph, this is no minor project. It involves taking the slow lines out into open countryside, to swing gently across the WCML, almost at right angles. This will involve almost 10km of new 100mph railway with twelve new bridge structures, four river diversions, earth bunds and run-off attenuation ponds. One million tonnes of earthworks are also involved, along with major pipeline and road diversions.

The timescales are challenging. The linespeed improvements are due to be commissioned by Spring 2014, Stafford resignalling by Summer 2015 and Norton Bridge flyover by Autumn 2017, though the alliance is confident of shaving almost a year off this projection.

As an infrastructure project of national significance, the flyover scheme is currently subject to a Development Consent Order, which provides the relevant powers and permissions to enable successful delivery of the programme. Once the Order is granted, main works are scheduled to run from spring 2014.

The ‘Pure Alliance’

So, that’s the engineering. Complex it may be, ambitious perhaps, but it’s all standard stuff. On the other hand, the scheme’s contractual arrangements are far from standard.

Network Rail, under the leadership of Sir David Higgins, has realised that a new approach is needed to meet the challenges of delivering multi-disciplinary programmes. There has to be a radically different employer/ contractor relationship. But whilst alliances have been used before in the rail industry, Staffordshire Alliance follows the Australian ‘Pure Alliance’ model, based around a single, truly collaborative contract.

So who’s involved? Staffordshire Alliance comprises Network Rail, Atkins, Laing O’Rouke and VolkerRail, working towards a set of common values and behaviours with risks/rewards shared equally and decisions made on a win/win, lose/lose and best for project basis.

The Alliance itself is a completely integrated team. This naturally leads to a different team dynamic, with an environment that encourages innovation, uses best practice throughout and enables a completely joined-up solution. It draws from all the Alliance members’ skills and experience. At the coal face level, the Alliance has but one bank account, one insurance company and one legal brief.

So, looking again at the engineering and track layouts for Stafford and Norton Bridge, it’s noticeable that, apart from the obvious changes, there is a level of redundancy built in to give operational flexibility in case of failures. This, too, is something new and augers well for the train service reliability of the future.

The Staffordshire Alliance is breaking new ground in more ways than one.