The sky is a cloudless blue. The sunlight is strong – really strong – reflecting off the baked dry earth. It makes any Brit, used to higher latitudes, squint through watering eyes, reach for the sunglasses and head for the nearest shade. This is early summer in the south of France and the temperature is… decidedly cool.
There’s a strong north-westerly wind – a chilly wind at this time of year. It’s Le Mistral. It howls through construction sites kicking up the dust. For all the appearance of balmy Mediterranean weather, this is just one example of the contrasts encountered in the Languedoc Roussillon region.
Forming part of the Mediterranean coastline, the area has its share of smart villas and estates. It’s not out of reach of the rest of France or indeed Paris which, as we’ll see later on, will soon be less than three hours away. And yet, despite the signs of extreme wealth, this is a region with one of the highest unemployment and deprivation levels in the country.
The landscape, too, is deceptive. There are miles and miles of near-flat fertile fields. Acres and acres of vineyards. This is where the renowned Languedoc red wine comes from – and the white is just as good. The soil scars easily with yet more dust flying in long plumes in the strong Mistral. And yet, every ten years or so there are massive floods with the whole area being inundated. Storms and river surges from the mountains inland send huge quantities of water down to the sea and the whole area becomes a flooded plain.
So this is an area of contrasts and contradictions, which is why the new high-speed railway bypass to Montpellier in the department of Herault and the neighbouring town of Nimes in Gard has had to contend with more challenges than would be apparent at first glance.
Even the departments have their differences. Gard paints its structures yellow whilst Hérault’s favourite colour is blue.
Montpelier is a relatively small district with a population of 430,000. Its railway network, built back in 1839, is now a bottleneck struggling to cope with the increasing demands of freight and passenger traffic.
In May 2005 a public declaration of a proposed bypass route was made and, during the intervening years, detailed designs, studies, consultations and land acquisitions were made.
The new route joins the existing Mediterranean high speed line at Redessan just to the south of Nimes and connects with the route near Lattes on to southern France and Spain. There will be a connecting spur to the old route near Nimes.
After a bidding period, a public private partnership (PPP) contract to build the line and maintain it for 25 years was awarded by Réseau Ferré de France (RFF – which has since become SNCF Réseau since 1 January 2015) to Oc’Via. This is a joint venture involving financial partners Meridiam and Fideppp and industrial companies Colas and Colas Rail (both Bouygues Construction subsidiaries), Alstom and Spie Batignolles. It includes also Systra and Setec, in charge of preliminary design and project control during the detailed design stage.
The size of the project, in monetary terms, is considerable. Of the €1.8 billion, 66% is provided by Oc’Via with the remainder coming from local authorities. The Oc’Via finance comes from loans from a dozen commercial banks backed by the European Investment Bank and Institutional Saving Funds augmented by contributions from other stakeholders.
With finance of this scale it is worth looking at one of the major players, Bouygues.
It must be admitted though that they are not a household name in the UK. In fact, the first stumbling block in any description of what they are and what they do is the very pronunciation of their name. The average Anglo Saxon is likely to make a toe-curlingly embarrassing attempt which will involve trying to pronounce every letter – loudly – using the phonetic blunderbuss approach. This is not the way. Only French facial muscles will enable a faultless pronunciation, although it is possible for Brits to make a reasonable stab it.
For a start, the ‘B’ is almost silent as is the ‘G’. Everything that follows the ‘G’ can be ignored. This just leaves two familiar vowel sounds – the ‘ou’ pronounced as a clipped ‘oo’ and the ‘y’ pronounced ‘ee’ – or maybe ‘i’, equally clipped. So you end up with something approaching “Boo-eeg”.
With the name mastered it is appropriate to look at the company’s history, which gives a clue to its considerable influence.
Bouygues was founded by Francis Bouygues in 1952 and was listed on the Paris Stock Exchange in 1970. During the 1980s, the company acquired road construction groups Screg, Sacer and Colas, and started operating the television channel TF1. In 1996 the company launched Bouygues Télécom, and this was followed in 2006 by the acquisition of 23.26% of Alstom. Bouygues entered the UK construction market in 1997.
‘Combined’ high-speed railway
The statistics of the bypass project are impressive, but this is to be expected for a new line that is 80km long. There are 177 bridges and 11 major viaducts. Most of the construction is on embankment, which has meant that borrow-pits have been dug to supply much of the fill material. As the route crosses the active flood plain, it has to cater for an eight metre rise in water levels. There are multiple culverts and spans just to cater for the flooding. Most of the time the railway is high and dry.
This is the first ‘combined’ high-speed railway in France. That is, it has been designed to carry both freight and passenger traffic. Thus it will relieve the pressure on the local networks, allowing more metro-style services for the surrounding areas. Freight traffic will no longer pass through the many villages on the old route.
Included in those early studies were comprehensive environmental and archaeological investigations. The habitat was diverse and over 126 species were deemed worthy of protective measures. One plant in particular, a species of Lythrum, even warranted a slight adjustment to the alignment of the new line.
This being an area of high unemployment, it was important that the project brought benefit to the local workforce rather than just importing skilled workers who would then depart on completion. There has been a specific focus on using local suppliers and businesses and on setting-up apprenticeship schemes so as to enhance the skills base of the region in the long term.
Major viaduct launches
Almost completed is the railhead complex that will receive all of the track infrastructure including rails, sleepers and ballast. This huge expanse of sidings and workshops is located at the lower level of the existing railway on which the materials will arrive. To get to the high-speed line, a long spiral loop has been constructed around the site, gradually winding up to the upper level.
Six of the viaducts are major steelwork structures – a mix of plate girder, warren truss and bowstring constructions. Fabrication has been subcontracted to Matière, Baudin and ZM.
Most of them cross rivers, and one also spans a busy dual carriageway and tram line. All of them have been, or will be, launched. That is, they are assembled on the track alignment, fitted with a detachable temporary ‘nose’ and pulled across the void into position, sliding on Teflon bearings. High up on the embankments, the Le Mistral screams through the structural steelwork making the operations appear to be insurmountable but, in fact, it takes just a day or so to complete each launch.
The view from the air reveals that there is activity going on throughout the 80km site with the western end nearing completion of base formation. By the end of 2015, the railway infrastructure will start to be installed, and completion and commissioning of the whole project will take place towards the end of 2017.
Compare and contrast
At the start of this article there were allusions to comparisons and contrasts. With an eye across La Manche (translates literally as ‘the sleeve’) – the English Channel – Bouygues is looking at what HS2 has to offer. ‘Align’ is a joint venture involving BouyguesTP, Volker Fitzpatrick and Sir Robert MacAlpine, bringing together all the skills needed for the construction of new high speed railways in the UK.
It may be worth looking at the contrasts between the Montpellier Nimes bypass line and the sort of environment likely to be encountered in the UK. The first difference that is obvious to anyone from the UK is the elbow room available in France. Need to build a bridge off-line?
No problem. Construction gear, accommodation, storage, roads? Plenty of room. And none of it is fenced at all. Trespassers? No problem. Just put up a notice saying keep off. If they get hurt then it’s their fault.
What about the neighbours? Some were not happy with the line or its construction, but most were glad that it was being built. Yes, glad! The project put on open days to show the public what was going on and people flocked to the events expressing genuine interest.
Compare and contrast with what is likely to be encountered in the UK.
Well, suffice to say, things could be just a little different!