The Darlington to Shildon line running through Heighington has a special place in railway history because it was here in 1825 that George Stephenson’s Locomotion No.1 began the world’s first passenger service using steam locomotives.

Heighington signal box dates back to 1872 and is one of the earliest surviving signal boxes in the country – only four are thought to pre-date it. It is a well preserved listed structure and retains an increasingly rare pre-First World War lever frame.

As a notable site in the early development of passenger trains, it is perhaps entirely appropriate that Heighington should feature at a key stage in their latest evolution and in years ahead this location will surely come to enjoy renewed fame as it is the chosen location of Hitachi Rail Europe’s new Rail Vehicle Manufacturing Facility.

Nearly 900 carriages will be made in the new factory that is part of a major development being undertaken by Merchant Place Developments at Merchant Park, Newton Aycliffe in County Durham. The facility’s production capability will include high-speed trains, commuter trains and metro trains, and will be home to an on-site research & development facility and test track. Representing an £82 million investment, it will be operational from 2015, creating 730 jobs along with a further 200 jobs during construction.

New factory – new track

Story Contracting is working with Network Rail to deliver the site’s new rail infrastructure. This multi-disciplinary design and build scheme includes the construction of 7,000 metres of new sidings and a new 1km long overhead electrified test track, along with reconfiguration of the existing branch line at its connection to the site. Story is also completing the extensive civils and earthworks that are needed to accommodate the new track layout, as well as providing the wide range of structures that will support the new overhead line and signalling infrastructure.

Story Contracting appointed Hyder Consulting to carry out the design of the track, civils and OLE during the development phase, well before works began on site. This was fully co-ordinated with the signalling design delivered by Network Rail’s Signalling Design Group. The design phase was managed collaboratively, with Network Rail providing the scheme designated project engineer and Story providing the contractor’s engineering manager.

A key design consideration was future proofing the installation to ensure that it would fulfill all of Hitachi’s potential, but currently unknown, production needs within its new facility. This included ensuring that gauge clearances and electrification provisions were compatible with all potential European markets, including light rail systems.

Test track embankment widening A [online]

Story Contracting maximised opportunities to re-use arising materials on site. This was achieved by working with the local Network Rail maintainer to identify rails and sleepers that could be re-used either in the reconfigured branch line, or within the new test track. Redundant switches and crossings components were also identified as being serviceable and a recovery methodology was developed so that they could be dismantled and removed for re-use elsewhere on the rail network.

Newts galore

Early ecological studies revealed that the site was positively teeming with fauna, including the presence of a designated newt kingdom along much of the footprint of the new embankment works. Story worked with Natural England to implement a comprehensive segregation and trapping programme to ensure that the relocation of several species of newts, amphibians and even glow-worms was carefully finished before any construction works began.

One of the first tasks completed on site was the removal of a redundant accommodation overbridge. This had been built to span the existing single line and therefore wasn’t wide enough to cross the new twin track railway that would be created by the addition of the new test track. Story Contracting’s project manager, Simon Turner, said: “The DAE1/12 overbridge created a bottleneck on the site and its removal was essential to enable the scheme to progress. We dismantled the structure during Rules of the Route possessions to avoid any disruption to the railway.”

The sidings are being built next to the new factory within the development site and also connect onto the slab-mounted rails that are  laid within the building itself. Construction of the sidings requires careful co-ordination with Shepherd Construction, which is building Hitachi’s new facility and is also providing the water test plant and other test infrastructure.

The sidings are connected to the branch line through a new reception siding and a ladder of twelve AV7 turnouts. The reception siding also provides the connection route from the site onto the new test track. To create a controlled environment for putting new trains through their paces, the test track needs to be straight and level and, as it is 1km long, the only place that it will fit is along the existing rail corridor immediately adjacent to the existing branch line.

Slewing the railway

Simon Turner noted: “Fortunately, the branch line at this location is a single, bi-directional route that has been laid on an embankment that once carried a twin-track layout. While this provides much of the additional space needed for the construction of the test track, the difficulty we overcame is that the branch line is built on the west side of the embankment, and this is the same side as the assembly facility. We can’t cross trains over the branch line to get them onto the test track so this means our solution is to create the space we need by uplifting the branch line and moving it across as part of the overall track reconfiguration.”

Even with the branch line moved towards the east there still isn’t quite enough space to fit the test track. Unlike a standard twin-track railway, the separation between the two tracks needs to be wider than for a typical six foot. This is to create a suitable separation between the operational railway and the test track so that it can effectively become a part of the overall Hitachi site.

To achieve this, Story is widening the existing embankment along much of the length of the test track route. The extent of the widening varies but is typically around four metres. This is achieved through a slope regrade tied into the existing embankment and widened at the base onto newly purchased land. Several culverts along the length of the embankment were extended to suit the new profile and considered deployment of gabion basket retaining walls overcame topographical features that prevented use of the widened base detail.

Assembling new Switches and Crossings [online]

Once the earthworks are complete the test track construction will progress with the track materials brought in by rail during Rules of the Route possessions and offloaded directly into position. Through careful planning of the construction sequence the entire installation of the test track will be carried out without causing any disruption to the adjacent railway.

Three-way collaboration

The works are being carried out in co- ordination with VolkerRail, which is providing OLE and signalling installations, and DeltaRail, contracted to commission the signalling at Tyneside IECC and Heighington signal box.

To deliver this complex scheme effectively, an integrated management team was established with Network Rail providing co-ordination and client interface, and Story and VolkerRail project managers providing all delivery planning. This is brought together through a series of weekly construction meetings and monthly programme reviews.

Simon Turner noted: “This level of co-ordination is essential for the success of the project. The signalling alterations require new location cabinets installed by VolkerRail on bases built by Story, then all of VolkerRail’s wiring is installed into containment routes that are buried by Story. Achieving all of this in the middle of a major civils and track scheme alongside a live railway demands huge levels of coordination between everybody on site.”

The major elements of the branch line reconfiguration, including the installation of a CVs 13 crossover and EVs 21 turnout along with the signalling changeovers, are planned for three consecutive 54-hour weekend possessions in November 2014. All of the other works on the site are being carried out either using standard Rules of the Route possessions or under line blockages to safeguard all staff from railway operations while working during the day. This ensures that the works are able to progress continually without disruption to normal railway operations.

Simon Turner concluded: “The works are planned for completion in March 2015, well ahead of the Rail Vehicle Manufacturing Facility’s opening date. This is a major project that demands a fully integrated solution to ensure that the structures, earthworks and track installations are able to be delivered seamlessly and without disruption either to the operational railway or the construction of the new factory. Once complete this will be a fantastic facility, whose legacy will benefit passengers across the nation for many years to come.”