The process to electrify the Great Western main line (GWML), which started in 1977, is now materialising. The first 12 miles of railway infrastructure coming out of London already has an overhead electrification power supply for the Heathrow Airport service and overhead line structures are being erected as part of the Reading station area project. The momentum is now gathering and, behind the scenes, much more is happening and it is nearly ready to burst into action.

In March 2012, Amey was appointed by Network Rail to deliver a five year operate, maintain and deliver (OMD) contract to electrify the GWML. The Amey contract is valued at approximately £20 million/ year and forms part of Network Rail’s £1.3 billion programme to increase speed and capacity on this part of the railway network. Lee Jones, director of operations for rail and metro, explained that Amey’s recent acquisition of Enterprise plc in April 2013 brought on board National Grid high voltage expertise that has bolstered the company’s knowledge and ability to successfully deliver one of the most important projects for Network Rail over the next five years.

Complementary expertise

Like many other infrastructure contractors at present, Amey is busy working through the bidding process with Network Rail for a number of track renewal contracts and other railway related infrastructure projects. They are working with other European partners including Rhomberg Rail and Sersa to ensure that they are making the latest European expertise available to Network Rail and also Transport for London.

The GWML contract requires Amey to electrify from Maidenhead to Bristol, Oxford and Newbury by 2016, then through the Severn Tunnel to Cardiff by 2017, with possible spurs up the Cardiff Valleys and eventually an extension of electrification to Swansea by 2018. It’s an exciting and demanding programme of work that Lee feels his organisation is more than capable of delivering with their known railway experience, recent acquisitions and of course, the now essential approach to collaborative working represented by their recent achievement, BS11000 accreditation.

The ‘factory train’

The Network Rail team responsible for developing the project has been determined to use the best and most modern equipment available to get the job done. The services of the German plant supplier Windhoff have been procured to build a suitable high output overhead line construction system to a specification which Network Rail has developed over the last three years. The key features of the design include the following rail mounted plant:


The Fambo Piling Rig tests begin.

  • Piling machine to drive a minimum of 16,000 steel tube piles of 610 and 762mm diameter;
  • Concrete mixer plus grab to install approx 2,000 reinforced concrete bases;
  • Steelwork erection equipment for 15,000 OLE structures;
  • Equipment for installing the wires;
  • Registration vehicles.

The £35 million system, which is a 23 vehicle ‘factory train’, arrived in this country recently and it is now undergoing trials, final checks and approval at High Marnham. Jim McDermott is Amey’s project director for this contract and he is recruiting 150 staff in total for the project – enough people to provide two train teams capable of covering six night shifts per week along with the associated maintenance and logistics operations. Many of them are now working with the train in High Marnham, learning how it works and becoming familiar and competent in its operations and maintenance requirements.

Army recruits

More than 25% of the new recruits have a forces background. It is part of Amey’s ‘Employer of Choice’ policy to support the recruitment of armed services personnel across a number of contracts. Jim was keen to point out the excellent quality of the personnel that they are managing to recruit, stating that not only are they well trained and skilled, but also that they have a very positive attitude to discipline and safety processes as well as having a refreshing enthusiasm. It is clearly an initiative that Amey is very pleased with and proud of.

Jim explained that the ‘factory train’ is designed to complete the construction of the foundations, erect the stanchions and install the overhead line equipment as it moves. The train will be flexible and able to run to site either as one complete consist or as multiple consists. It can be moved remotely with no driver in cab and it will be capable of installing 1.6km or a ‘tension length’ per night – this is the initial target that Jim and his team aspire to.

An issue that is concentrating minds at present is that the adjacent line will remain open whilst work is underway. The train is designed to ensure that staff are able to work safely with the adjacent line open. The norm would be to impose a 20 to 40 mph speed restriction on the open line. However, the operating benefits would be considerable if this speed could be increased. As a consequence, various systems are currently being considered whilst the train is at Marnham to see whether this is possible without, of course, increasing the risk to the people involved or other train operations.


The train will operate from the HOOB, a £6 million High Output Operations Base which was recently designed and built by Amey and is located close to Swindon station. A 25-stong team is being recruited to manage the base full time and, in addition, a 140,000 sq ft distribution centre has been acquired nearby, designed to house six weeks’ stock of the materials required for the project.

The nightly process will be a finely tuned logistics operation. The train will arrive at the HOOB every morning having completed its night’s work and it will then be refuelled, maintained and restocked with materials for the next night. Therefore, it will be important that the materials on the train are used each night to avoid double handling and creating a log jam of materials and equipment both in the HOOB and the distribution centre. As a consequence, a significant amount of time and effort is being committed to ground surveys to ensure that the right equipment and materials will be available to respond to the ground conditions that they are likely to experience.

Ground condition survey critical


The excavator with attachments.

As Jim points out, predicting ground conditions in such an environment is not an exact science as, especially alongside railway lines, they can be extremely variable. His aim is to be as thorough and accurate as possible and, also, to introduce disciplines and processes to ensure that, where the conditions are contrary to expectations, the response from the team is measured, organised and constructive.

Where the piling is known to be unconventional, for example in station areas and heritage locations, Atkins is providing consultancy design support for the project. Also, the design of the OLE system is being developed by a Swiss Electrification Company, Furrer+Frey. This will ensure that the new contact system designed for Network Rail includes all the latest successful developments that have been incorporated into recent electrification projects built on the continent.

To supply the power, three National Grid supply points have been identified – at Didcot, Melksham and Cardiff. Network Rail has already requested tenders earlier this year to design and build 24 next-generation auto transfer systems to distribute power across the network.

That’s the position to date. A lot has been happening behind the scenes and as Lee said, his focus at present is to make sure that Amey provides a fully operational train for a fully operational railway, thereby supporting the long term Network Rail vision of a seven day railway, where infrastructure work becomes invisible to the travelling public.

Many positive factors

It is clear that there are other positive factors emerging from this project. For example, high voltage design skills are in short supply within the railway environment and Amey has enhanced its expertise in this area through capability acquired through the Enterprise deal.

New methods of working are not only being talked about but also put into practise – the new £35 million high output train owned by Network Rail is an excellent example of this. These new methods of working introduces the need for new jobs and the development of a new skill base for the industry, one that in turn attracts a different type of recruit who is competent, disciplined and committed to being successful.

Of course, these are not new ideas but this might be one of the first projects that have managed to take into account all these considerations before work has started. For Lee and his team, it bodes well for the future. They now have a flexible railway activity that has grown significantly in the UK market and, through its parent company Ferrovial, Amey is exploring opportunities in Europe and further afield.

For Jim and his team, there is a long way to go, but everything appears to be in order and with the potential of more work on offer as they progress toward South Wales, the motivation for everyone must be high. Work will start in earnest in the New Year and Jim is keen for The Rail Engineer to review progress in future issues.