Dating back 150 years, London Underground is the world’s oldest metro system and one of the busiest. With customer demand at its highest level ever, one of the big challenges it faces is replacing its ageing infrastructure whilst keeping four million people moving each day.

“London Underground has one key value – time,” explains George McInulty, infrastructure director for London Underground. “Running trains on time is vital, delivering the railway back on time when doing work is key to avoiding disruption to London.”

As part of this focus, Track Partnership – a strategic alliance between London Underground and Balfour Beatty Rail – set out in March 2012 on a journey to transform the way it undertakes the essential rail renewal works which are vital to keeping London moving.

Every second counts

The journey started with an acknowledgement that there was a lot of work to be done. Not just in terms of the volume of engineering work – every year the amount of track and drainage replacement is doubling – but also in the way the work is delivered.

“We set ourselves on the path to world class delivery. Our vision is that this is achieved through getting it consistently right across the spectrum of safety, reliability, effective use of access, cost and delivery,” explained London Underground’s head of track renewals, John Hardy.

Training fit for purpose

Execution of The Track Partnership Way was crucial, and the next step was to drill the team in the correct way to deliver a renewal. So during summer 2012, while the eyes of the world were focused on East London for the Olympics, the team organised the biggest training event in London Underground’s track renewals history at Ruislip Depot in West London. Involving six worksites, three classrooms and 40 engineering trains, it was led by 14 trainers who delivered 15,000 hours of engineering and soft skills training to 1,500 people.

The four-week event, which was operated alongside a ‘dry run’ track renewal, focused on site management, supervision and core engineering skills. Onsite works were completed in a non-operational depot under a series of different scenarios to see how they will react when the pressure is on.Adjacent Line Working [online]

“The Olympics stand down provided an ideal opportunity to deliver this essential training,” explained Steve Naybour. “During the four weeks we had visitors from London Underground’s Track Delivery Unit, Tube Lines, Balfour Beatty and the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) who were all impressed to see such an initiative take place. It really was an event to be proud of.”

Groundbreaking blockade

The opportunity to put this training into practice came in October 2012 when a programme of essential upgrade works was required on the Hainault Loop section of the Central Line, between Grange Hill and Newbury Park. The scope involved installation of 11 points and crossing units, track renewals totalling 500 metres, two bridge waterproofing schemes, 319 metres of drainage (including 10 new catch pits to prevent track flooding and signal failures), 650 metres of embankment stabilisations and extensive vegetation clearance works.

Rather than undertaking the works over a series of short weekend possessions, Track Partnership took a different approach and blitzed the work in one closure. This led to the equivalent of 19 days work being completed in 12 days. As a result, the number of hours of disruption involved in undertaking the works was significantly reduced – 288 rather than the 488 needed using traditional multiple weekend closures. In other words, there was 40% less disruption to the travelling public. It also led to cost savings of approximately £5 million to London Underground.

“Blockade working is a key element of the LU closure strategy,” explains George McInulty. “There are times when the pieces of work required for upgrading assets can be parcelled together in a coherent way that makes sense to all, including our customers who have to endure the pain of railway disruption. The Hainault blockade was an excellent example of more work being done with less overall disruption which means we can do it more efficiently. It was a great overall win win.”

Delivering more with less

With the success of the Hainault Blockade under its belt, the next focus was on volume. During the last seven years the average output for a typical weekend track renewal had been around 400 metres. To increase the pace of progress, some innovative thinking was required.

One of the key components that was identified as slowing down the renewal process was the humble sleeper. It had been 30 years since London Underground had last adopted a new sleeper and the time had come for a new one.

In March 2013, the team introduced the 1502 Fastclip FE Sleeper. Fitted with the Pandrol Fastclip system, this is a sleeper designed for speed of installation. When combined with Balfour Beatty Rail’s New Track Construction (NTC) train, the installation process was automated – allowing the team to deliver volumes of up to 1,200 metres of new track in a single weekend.

Less intrusive

Track Partnership also looked at ways of reducing the amount of the network that is closed to support engineering works. The length of track that is closed to support possessions is normally dictated by the number of engineering crossovers that are required to undertake the works.

In April this year trials started on the use of the Non Intrusive Crossover System (NICS). This system, which had previously been successfully implemented by Balfour Beatty Rail on the Tynemouth to Wallsend blockade on the Tyne and Wear Metro for Nexus in August 2012, enables the installation a temporary non-signalled crossover wherever it is required on the network. The flexibility that this provides will ultimately lead to being able to keep more stations open and services running while engineering works are taking place – another important milestone in the drive to reduce passenger disruption.

Stealth operations

Track Partnership’s ultimate goal is to renew the infrastructure in the centre of London without the need to close the line to its daily service.

Renewals in track engineering hours will involve completing works by stealth, one part of the infrastructure at a tiHainault Blockade [online]me. In May of this year, Track Partnership deployed a new process from mainland Europe to support this goal. The ballast replacement process, nicknamed the ‘Elephant Vacuum Excavator’, reballasted a section of track without the need to remove the rails and sleepers first.

The introduction of open (or adjacent) line working was another milestone for the team. Working closely with the ORR, Transport for London and Chiltern Railways, this allowed the latter to keep a service running alongside a renewals site on the Metropolitan line. A robust system of communications between signallers and the works team meant that trains on the Chiltern line continued to run without risk to the working team or the public, who may not have even noticed that the railway was being renewed around them!


All this innovation has not gone unnoticed. Track Partnership recently won the Best Customer Initiative category at the 2013 Global Light Rail and Urban Transit Awards. The judges’ based their decision on how well Track Partnership understood the ultimate goal of the customer – to keep London moving without delaying trains following major infrastructure replacement.

On receiving the award, John Hardy said: “It is great for the team to be recognised for the huge strides we have made in improving delivery efficiency and, particularly, reliability. We will celebrate, briefly, then get back to delivering our next renewals.”

Looking forward

Track Partnership has successfully doubled the pace of the renewing of London’s ageing Tube network, with every weekend seeing more track replaced than ever before. And whilst outputs have increased, disruption to passengers has never been lower.

The success of the Hainault Blockade last October has helped to define the programme of work for the next 25 years. In outlying areas of London, the team will continue to package up works into blockades, significantly reducing the hours of disruption. In the central areas, the engineering hours renewals strategy (effectively, overnight work) will be deployed in areas that need to remain open.

As a result, London will continue to be served by a world class underground system for the next 150 years with fewer disruptions to daily services. This can only be achieved by a team that truly understands what matters to London – that every second counts.