It’s just gone four o’clock in the morning in high summer during a period of particularly fine, hot weather. The sun will be up soon. The first trains of the day have set out from their depots heading for Warrington on the West Coast main line (WCML). They are appearing on the signaller’s display as illuminated track circuits. From the trackside they’re becoming visible as tiny white lights in the distance, shimmering slightly in the early morning haze.

But they have nowhere to go.

The line between Warrington and Preston is blocked and has been blocked for the past nine days for major S&C renewals. This is a time of extreme pressure. It’s all been going to plan so far, but with a few minutes to go there are still red signals blocking the way for these, and all subsequent, trains. So far, passengers are unaware that nothing can move. They’ve planned their journeys on the basis that their trains will be running – trains that depend on these early morning movements being uninterrupted.

The seconds are ticking away. More trains appear on the signaller’s panel. The white lights in the distance are getting brighter, but the signals remain at red.

There’s nothing now to be done. It all depends on the final handback of infrastructure by the permanent way, signal testers and overhead line staff.

At 04.20hrs word comes through that the possession protection has been lifted and that the WCML is open for business. Signal aspects change and the approaching trains continue their journey. Passengers are oblivious of the tension that has just been released.

The most efficient option

But why the nine day blockade? What can justify such a long disruption of the WCML? Well, as Alan Howarth, Network Rail’s project sponsor tells us, this is all about going for the most efficient option.WCML 006 [online]

It all starts with an examination of the maintenance requirements for the larger infrastructure items on the route. Take, for example, some of the S&C layouts. These have to be tamped about twice a year, but such is the interdependence of each individual piece that it’s necessary to block all lines in order to treat the layout effectively. This can lead to 28-hour possessions, or what is known as disruptive access.

Looking at a list of proposed renewals and looking also at the list of sites where disruptive access is required led to a project to design out the need for such long possessions.

The idea is that, by simplifying and extending a layout, it is possible to tamp individual parts on their own, without the need to block the entire layout. These individual items of work can then be done within normal eight hour possessions.

But completing all this new work is, in itself, disruptive. And so it was for four S&C sites between Warrington and Preston. However, these four could be combined into one installation process and, with a deal of intense planning, could be completed in nine days instead of a cumulative total of twenty-five.

Despite involving two weekends and a whole week of business travel, this would be a huge gain for the Virgin trains business. The leisure market, especially at weekends is a large growth area.

Integrated access

And so, with a compromise between engineering preferences and passenger traffic flows, the blockade was fixed for July 2013. The Network Rail/ Babcock Alliance is based at Crewe under Paul Marshal. Work was allocated to the most suitable contractor based on their ability to provide the best service.

Everything was planned on an ‘integrated access’ arrangement. Although there were four main sites, it was possible for work involving both railway and non-railway work, structural improvements, track maintenance and station work to be included – so long as the main works were not affected.

There was a major risk though.

It was just not possible to get all the freight traffic through the diversionary routes and so the remainder was threaded past the work sites under single line working using pilotmen. The signalling was not in operation because all the tracks had been disrupted. To ensure a smooth operation, trains were tracked on the night from their point of origin – right back to Southampton in some cases. Through careful liaison between individual control offices these vital services were fed towards the blockade at the right time and in the right order so that they would turn up for their twenty minute slot.

The day to day running of the project involved the classic three-tier control system: Bronze, silver and gold. Bronze involved each work site and also stations. Silver was the first level of coordination and Gold was the highest. Conference calls occurred twice a day to feed through progress and any snags encountered.

Radio communication was used at each site along with internet facilities. This meant that emails and drawings could be sent directly to site.

Independent project review

The Warrington Bank Quay to Preston blockade was such a high profile project that it was decided to follow an independent project review process right from the start. This was a lesson learnt from the Olympics where a similar scheme had resulted in a 99.9% train punctuality.

It involves representatives of all parties from across the industry making regular presentations of their planning and risk appraisals to an independent panel made up of key individuals from Network Rail, TOCs, FOCs and suppliers. The process started 29 weeks before the blockade and covered everything in fine detail – from the proposed replacement timetable through to examining the reliability of hand tools. BuWCML 079 [online]t the major engineering risks were investigated too, such as tampers and their reliability, train driver availability and route knowledge. Train operating company readiness was also explored in terms of station capacity, train stock reliability and staff arrangements.

Key parts of the diversionary routes were examined and proactively treated to prevent failures. In reality there were two major projects involved. The first and most visible was the engineering, but the second was making sure that the diversionary routes remained open and able to take the extra influx of traffic.

The cut finger

Before the final go ahead, the reviewing panel issued a certificate to the project team to confirm that all plans were sound and that everything was ready to go. With the work completed and the only reportable safety incident being a cut finger – unpleasant enough for the finger perhaps – it was time to extend the review process into the lessons learnt. This was done at both two and eight weeks after.

Alan acknowledges that the review process was the most rewarding part of it all. “It showed me how to plan effectively and taught me the key things that really matter to the industry as a whole.” Not surprisingly these all centre round collaborative working and integrated planning to ensure that the ultimate customer – the passenger – has the least disruptive travelling experience possible. This may mean organising trains to suit traffic flows and capacity needs rather than individual companies’ proposals. There is not likely to be a simple or quick solution!

Where next? “Penrith, Harrison sidings and Oxheys are still to do, but we are still investigating sites for CP5 where collaborative working with extended engineering access would be the most appropriate implementation solution. It doesn’t suit everywhere.”


These were also anxious times in a drivers’ mess room. A sweepstake was run on when the blockade would be handed back. All bets were that the possession would overrun with no sites running faster than 20mph. Real money hung on this result.

There was astonishment in the mess room as nobody had reckoned on an on-time hand back with 50mph at three sites and one at 80mph (a first for the UK). All the stake money went to charity! Not a bad result either.