Earls Court is a crucial link in the London Underground (LUL) rail network, unlocking the way to the whole western section of the District Line, as well as being an important station in its own right. The track has been in a poor state for years and, in order to ensure safety and some sort of reliability, there have been far more maintenance interventions than should normally be necessary for such infrastructure as is present here. This maintenance has meant both excess costs and undesirable disruption to services as the works have been undertaken.

LUL has, understandably, been considering how best to rectify this situation for the long term through track renewal works. The issue has been not what to do but how to programme it for the best possible balance between efficiency, effectiveness and convenience for the customer.

In parallel with the consideration of this particular project, the organisation has also been undertaking a strategic review of the way it does track renewals. The routine has been the use of weekend line closures, something not universally popular with the travelling public!

So, in moving away from this approach, LUL aims to minimise the impact on passengers through developing methods to renew during normal closure periods at night but, when suitable, to utilise major blockades to ‘blitz’ large amounts of work. This was the case for Earls Court as described by John Hardy, LUL head of track renewals, and his colleagues in the Track Partnership (a collaboration between LUL and Balfour Beatty Rail), Steve Naybour, business improvement manager and Ram Ramburn, project manager.

Three out of four

The overall works required at Earls Court consisted of renewal of the four platform lines and of the points at the west end of the station. This was too much to be undertaken in one session, even if the ‘major blockade’ approach was to be used.

It was decided to split the works into two and to tackle the ‘easier’ part first, this being the majority of the plain line relaying. The layout of the station, which has four platforms, meant that only three of the four lines could be relaid in one blockade so as to leave the fourth available for the large number of engineering trains that would be needed to bring in materials and remove spoil, 90% of which would be recycled.

Christmas week is the quietest week on the LUL system, and Christmas Day is the only day of the year when the whole network shuts down. It was therefore determined that, despite the fact that Chelsea FC were due to play at home on Boxing Day and again on 29 December, this was the week to plan for. In the end the plan for 2013 was to renew the plain line of Platforms 1, 2 and 4, which vary in length up to 220m. This would mean renewing the decks of two subways that pass beneath Platform 2 and two sections of slab track (one in Platform 1 and the other in Platform 2) as well as the plain track.

The intention is to renew the fourth line (Platform 3) and the west end pointwork in a similar blockade at Christmas 2014. Lessons learned from the ‘simpler’ 2013 works will assist in seeing through these more complex tasks.

Christmas morning

“Delivering a multi discipline project in the tight confines of Earls Court which was kept open for service was a mammoth challenge,” Ram Ramburn explained. The 2013 works started early on Christmas Day, probably before even the most excited children opened their Christmas stockings. Six days of intensive work followed, interrupted by the Chelsea matches, and resulting in the handing back of the new track and structures on time at the start of traffic on New Year’s Eve.

The platform lines renewed had never been relaid in living memory, so there was a mass of heavily contaminated spoil to be removed. Indeed, this amounted to about 2,200 tonnes to be shifted by train from the site. 28 engineer’s trains were required to remove this burden or to bring in the new materials for the project.

The complications of combining the track, slab and subway renewals in one blockade were added to by the problems of drainage and underground (excuse the pun!) services. There has been a serious problem with the drainage at the west end of the station. Several smaller drains were known to have collapsed under the tracks, and a major drain some eight metres below was feared to be on the brink of doing the same. Meanwhile there were no real records at all of the pipes, cables and so on that existed below the tracks. What was known was that there are 22kV cables running parallel to the tracks on both sides of the station, clearly not things to be interfered with!

Ground penetrating radar was the solution to the services issue. It proved extremely effective in detecting the potential obstacles and hazards. Most of these were diverted out of the way, but there were three that had to be worked around, and the 22kV cables alongside just had to be protected, highlighted and avoided too.

The eight-metre-deep drain was successfully relined and restored to full structural and functional health, and a further 270 metres of new drains were installed.

Given the need for them to be used during the works, the two subways had to be protected by erecting crash decks inside them before their reconstructions could begin. The new pre-cast concrete beam subway decks were installed above these after the old superstructures had been cut up and removed.

Reopening for fans

Safe passage of passengers through other parts of the works was also provided for in order to allow the football traffic on the two match days already mentioned. In fact, on Boxing Day it was necessary to reopen the two centre tracks of the station for the Chelsea match that day.

“One of the proudest achievements of the project was keeping the Piccadilly Line open at the same station while our major works where completed and handing back to support the two Chelsea games. This is a good example of our focus – keeping London Moving while doing much needed infrastructure replacement to keep it fit for London,’ Steve Naybour enthused.

Earls Court is a residential area, and so it was essential to take full precautions against noise and dust pollution affecting the neighbours. Noise screens and tents were used around the noisy activities, particularly the breaking out of slabs. The effectiveness of these precautions was seen when there were no complaints received about the project at any time.

No lost time accidents were reported despite the estimated 18,000 person hours devoted to the works. Hot meals were provided to every shift of workers and on Christmas Day a full

turkey dinner was served to the team of about 100 who were at work then. People were giving up their Christmas for the project and it was considered appropriate to recognise this in such ways.

The completed works will ensure a much more reliable railway, with great reductions in maintenance requirements. Stepping distances between trains and platforms have been improved and made more consistent by realigning the platform copings to match the new track alignments.

The project was delighted to have received a VIP visit from London Underground managing director Mike Brown during the course of the undertaking. He was shown around the site by John Hardy and was well pleased with the outcome of their labours. No doubt he is looking forward to seeing the other ‘half’ of the station renewals carried out equally successfully by this time next year.