Costain is a well-known name. It must be so as, in the waiting area of the company’s headquarters in Maidenhead, there is a large coffee-table book entitled “Business Superbrands”. Costain’s name is in there.

Most people would associate the Costain name with major, prestigious, one-off projects such as the Thames Barrier (1982), the Channel Tunnel (1993) or the new Hong Kong airport (1996). One might also link the Costain brand with civil engineering associated with the railway environment, but it is fair to say that many would not consider Costain to be a major rail engineering company. However, they would be wrong, and that is why The Rail Engineer went to meet Gren Edwards, Costain’s director of rail, to discover the story behind this significant move into real rail engineering.

Gren joined Costain in December 2010. His objective was to grow Costain’s rail engineering business by acquiring the skills required and to use the significant talent that existed within the company’s 5,000-strong workforce.

Before joining Costain, Gren had developed a wealth of experience by creating a railway engineering company, Grant Rail, which started as a supplier to other contractors before emerging as a principal contractor for Network Rail and London Underground. When that company was acquired by the Dutch-based business VolkerWessels, he stayed on as CEO of the emerging company VolkerRail.

Shortly after joining Costain, Gren appointed Ross MacKenzie as customer director. Ross, an ex-army major, has been with Costain since 2008.

Early railway projects

At the time Gren joined Costain, it was already carrying out a number of prestigious and important railway projects. For example, the company had been working for Union Railways since 2001, cutting 18km of twin 8.15 metre diameter tunnels through the densely populated east end of London working in close proximity to other rail tunnels. Costain created a joint venture (JV) with Skanska and Bachy to win this contract’ and they succeeded to deliver the tunnels ahead of programme and within budget.

As part of the high speed project, Union Railways needed a prestige London terminus for the new Channel Tunnel service. St Pancras station was chosen but at the time it was in very poor condition. A JV was formed led by Costain and the project went on to be an award winning success and London now has a station of which it can be truly proud.

Some time ago, supermarket chain Tesco developed a plan to build a store over a cutting through Gerrards Cross in north London. A contractor was engaged to bridge the cutting by creating a tunnel over it. Unfortunately, the tunnel partially collapsed in 2005, blocking the railway line. In 2006, in collaboration with Network Rail, Tesco approached Costain to find a way to complete the tunnel and allow the store to be built. Costain redesigned the tunnel using wherever possible the materials already on site and built the new store and car park.

Little acorns!

Then in 2008, Network Rail appointed the Costain Laing O’Rourke JV to construct the enlarged station at Farringdon as part of the Thameslink and Crossrail schemes. This was a complex programme which combined traditional civil engineering with complex and often detailed trackside work, requiring possession management skills and a significant awareness and appreciation of signalling, power and other operating systems. Costain introduced a novel temporary platform system to protect the track from heavy plant movements. It was deployed quickly at the start of the possession, and easily moved at the end to restore the track to full operational order.

Work at Farringdon Station was still in progress when Gren joined Costain and he was keen to point out how pivotal this programme of work was. It enabled Costain to gain credibility as a contractor which fully understands what is involved when working alongside an operational railway. As a consequence, it also offered Costain an opportunity to move from a stop-start rail business to one that has consistent turnover with a continuous flow of work.

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In order to enable Costain to build credibility with their clients, Network Rail, London Underground, Crossrail and Thameslink, it was agreed that they would need to develop their technical expertise. Therefore, Gren appointed a Professional Head each for Track, Electrification, Rail Civil Engineering and Signalling. Gren emphasised that, even though at present they have not yet ventured into signalling design and installation, they need to have the knowledge and the associated awareness to function effectively in an operational railway environment, hence the post.

With these key personnel in place the company could start to offer a quality service to the client that was different. It would not only draw in the newly acquired railway skills but it would also enable Costain to share and transfer the significant skills, lessons learnt and experience that had been gained over the years in Costain from working in Nuclear, Water and Highways.

Emerging business strategy

Ross MacKenzie then explained the broader strategy that they adopted. Traditional railway work such as that at Farringdon, St Pancras, Gerrards Cross and, as principal contractor, at Reading and London Bridge stations is always going to be an important part of their portfolio.

However, to create consistency of work flow, the company needed to win contracts that are more closely associated with the operational railway. This it has managed to do by successfully tendering for the five-year, multi-discipline, Network Rail framework contract for buildings, civils and enhancements for the Southern Region (Kent).

Alongside this initiative, Costain has been awarded Network Rail’s north-east infrastructure and stations project, which involves remodelling a significant number of stations on the north- eastern part of the emerging Crossrail network. In addition, there are significant upgrades of track and associated electrification and signal integration. This is a diverse package of work to be completed over the next 3 years. Writes Colin Carr

Complementary skills

In parallel to this, the Costain team’s strategy also focuses on areas of work where the diverse range of skills required favoured a JV approach. This was particularly appropriate if Costain wanted to feature in Network Rail’s electrification programme and, after three years of behind the scenes discussion and negotiation, ABC Electrification emerged (Alstom / Babcock / Costain), a reputable power-house of complementary skills and experience.

To date, ABC has won contracts for the electrification of the London North West (South) route (£435 million), Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Programme (£75 million) and,
just recently, the Welsh Valley Lines (£450 million). Alongside this significant package is the previously-awarded West Coast main line power upgrade phase 3B work worth £50 million.

To round off the strategy, the Costain team started to look at multi-disciplinary systems, focussing specifically on the fit out programme for all the Crossrail tunnels. Another joint venture has emerged, known as ATC (Alstom, TSO, and Costain). This JV has the combined skills to install track, overhead line and power supply equipment and it has been awarded three Crossrail contracts valued at £300 million.

Develop solutions

As Gren pointed out, it makes for a fascinating story which is a testament to the talent that exists within the company. He believes that one must have the ability to listen to what the client really wants and then develop solutions, often to challenging problems, to deliver what is required. Clearly, the order book shows that Costain’s various clients do think that Costain has the ability to find solutions to challenging problems and they do think that Costain is a company that fully understands the challenges which an operational railway environment can throw up. To put this into numerate terms, the turnover for rail related business within Costain in 2010 was about £30 million per annum, with significant peaks and troughs. Today, the turnover is £300 million per annum, which is sustainable, and there is a forward order book of around £1.4 billion. The figures speak for themselves, and now nobody can deny that Costain is a ‘real’ rail company.