It was just under two years ago that the Rail Engineer went to Birmingham to look at the Midland Metro Alliance programme (issue 146, December 2016). This was a time of preparation with corporate structures bedding down and a long ‘to do’ list. There were also signs of an emerging buoyant construction industry working all over the city.
Two years later, and we’ve returned to meet Alejandro Moreno, director of the Midland Metro Alliance, and Steve Grimes, the alliance’s project director for the Birmingham Westside Metro extension.
The city centre is now almost unrecognisable and is a challenge to navigate – even on foot – although pedestrian wayfinding signage from Birmingham City Council, Transport for West Midlands and the Midland Metro Alliance certainly does help.
Everyone and everything has arrived – even, for a brief period, the Tory party conference with its associated high security and friendly policemen with machine guns.
Before we go any further it is perhaps worth recapping on what has happened with the West Midlands Metro so far. The original system began operation in 1999 with a fleet of 16 trams supplied by AnsaldoBreda. The 20.1km track, serving locations such as the Jewellery Quarter, West Bromwich, Wednesbury and Bilston, ran mainly along the former railway line between Birmingham Snow Hill and Wolverhampton, with a short section of on-street running along Bilston Road to the terminus at St. Georges.
In May 2016, the Birmingham city-centre extension fully opened, which brought the tram right into the heart of the city along busy retail and commercial streets. This extension was part of a £128 million project that saw the purchase of a new 21-strong fleet of CAF Urbos 3 trams, a refurbished depot at Wednesbury and new stops at St Chads, Bull Street, Corporation Street and Grand Central for New Street station.
The line stops abruptly in Pinfold Street, just round the corner from Grand Central, and aims at the logical extension to Victoria and Centenary Squares and beyond to Edgbaston via Five Ways.
Victoria Square is an area of great architectural significance and it was deemed that catenary wires would not be desirable. Thus, 840 metres of twin track will have no overhead structures and the Urbos trams will run on battery power, an option specified at the time of purchase. The batteries are installed in the roof and, at the time of writing, a number of units have had batteries fitted and one unit now carries the new blue livery of West Midlands Metro (left).
There is another location where battery power is required – this time for more mundane structural clearance reasons. This is where the tram uses the existing underpass at the vast Five Ways road junction.
Elsewhere on the network…
Work is underway on other parts of the network. The extension from the existing main line to Wolverhampton railway station, currently being demolished and rebuilt, is due for completion by 2020.
To the east, an application has been made for a Transport and Works Act Order to build and operate the Birmingham Eastside Metro extension from Bull Street to Digbeth.
When granted, the order would allow work to start on the 1.05 mile (1.7km) extension which will serve the proposed HS2 station at Curzon Street, offering connections to New Street, Moor Street and Snow Hill railway stations.
A local public inquiry was closed without objection after a day and a half in November 2017. Pending a decision from the Secretary of State, work is scheduled to begin in 2019 and the line could open by 2023.
In the early stages of development is a scheme for the system to be extended past High Street Deritend, via Birmingham City Football Club and Heartlands Hospital to Birmingham Airport/NEC/International station, terminating at the HS2 interchange station in north Solihull.
A business case has been prepared and was presented to government in June 2017 to extend the Metro from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill. This is an 11km route that runs largely along an existing heavy-rail corridor which, although it has not been used since March 1993, could still carry full-sized trains. As a result, there is a strategic need for the infrastructure design – the track geometry, gauge clearance, substructure and ballast depth – all being able to accommodate heavy rail in the future.
All of this is being managed both day-to-day and strategically by the Midland Metro Alliance and Transport for West Midlands. This is basically an agreement between three parties – the client, the construction contractor and the designer. The alliance is not a legal entity like a joint venture.
The client is the West Midlands Combined Authority, which is also a partner in the alliance. The contractor is Colas Rail, (supported by sub-alliance partners Colas Limited, Barhale, Bouygues UK and Auctus Management Group). The designer is Egis Rail UK supported by Tony Gee and Partners and Pell Frischmann.
Whatever may be happening with the strategic issues, it is the ‘here and now’ that is very much to the fore. The ‘here and now’ involves constructing modules of tram track through a city centre that has at least four other independent major infrastructure projects on the go. All of these are competing for space, for resources and for access. None of them have an easy job and none of them would be able to insist on operating in isolation. There has to be close cooperation on a daily basis.
As well as space/resources/access issues, there are the interests of the travelling public to be considered. It is not unusual for vehicular rights to be restricted but, in the case of Birmingham City centre, it is pedestrians that are most affected. As the work progresses, so do the footpath diversions. In addition, there is a need to maintain some public meeting places for events such as the busy and long-established Christmas Market.
It is unusual for an urban tramway to be constructed as a continuous worksite. There are too many conflicting road and foot traffic movements.
As a result, the tram way is constructed in sections, and the sections are, in part, determined by the rail lengths involved and the bending of the rail. The design of the slab track is one that has been used for decades in France and allows a variety of infill options, such as concrete, asphalt or even grass. The road finish is completely independent of the structural support.
The rail is a grooved section – 41 GPU – with concrete sleepers supplied by Stanton Bonna. The traction current is DC and so there has to be a mechanism to eliminate stray return currents. This is achieved by encapsulating the rail sections with an insulating layer provided by Trelleborg. Each rail has the layer factory applied, except for the end 500mm. This allows site welding to be carried out, after which the welded area is coated with a dielectric paint and a site-applied insulating coating. The encapsulation of the rails also assists with the reduction of vibrations from the tramway.
The sections are surrounded and isolated by hoardings. Access is maintained around these islands of activity, but at some stage the sections have to be joined up – an operation that Steve admits can be “tricky – very tricky”. If the window of opportunity for the joining of sections is very limited, then there is the option of constructing precast modules that can be lifted into position.
The original programme of sectional construction has had to be amended in the central area because of the impact of adjoining major developments. As a result, a complete road closure of Paradise Circus is in force.
Although the tramway is run on line-of-sight, and thus does not need continuous signalling, cabling for the information systems for the stops along the route will be fed through dedicated cabling ducts. Cabling only becomes continuous once all the ducting is installed, but there is no such option for rail.
Much of the work is visible – the construction of the slab for the tracks for example. But, before this can happen, there have been extensive service diversions and upgrades. In Pinfold Street, where some of the cellars associated with the properties on one side of the street extended out under the carriageway, these have been reduced in size and strengthened so as to support the track slab.
There was a brief period of media attention when a ‘Roman road’ was uncovered in the area close to Birmingham’s imposing Town Hall. After analysis by archaeologists, ‘Roman road’ turned out to be ‘late 18th century footpath’, but there were interesting archaeological finds nonetheless which went on display at the nearby Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery this summer.
An example of high tech cooperation was the blending of drawing data relating to the track details with data associated with adjacent developments. With the surrounding schemes in the city agreeing a common datum, and by preparing their drawings in accordance with ISO 44001, the true value of BIM (building information modelling) becomes obvious. Collaboration is not only people talking to each other, the drawings need to talk with each other too!
The whole scheme acts as a conduit to channel funds into the local economy and there have been some impressive results. A large percentage of materials for the construction projects was sourced locally and, last year, 26 young people previously not in education, employment or training were recruited from the local community to the project.
Part of the alliance model requires all parties to share pain and to share gain. If works are carried out in a way that creates savings then some of those savings can be used to expand efficiency initiatives.
Alejandro explained the ‘matching-up’ project, which reaches out to start-up companies that have proposed ways of helping the Metro solve specific problems. Currently there are more than 180 different ideas, some of which have become a reality. Eighty companies in the West Midlands have said that they have ideas they want to develop – a review process has started and eleven of those eighty could be useful.
At a detailed level, QR codes have been fitted onto machinery and equipment so that it’s possible to track and manage each item. This is an existing tool in the market but it’s new to the alliance.
“Find a good idea somebody already has and bring it here!” said Alejandro.
A good example that is keeping the workforce and public safe is the SMS barrier, which has a very quick deployment from a trailer. It is a new and innovative steel barrier system from Colas Aximum that has been deployed on alliance projects
Looking forward, the alliance has to consider the complexities of working alongside the HS2 project. Preliminary designs for the section from Bull Street to the HS2 terminus are underway and HS2 is preparing its drawings.
The alliance has considerable credibility when it comes to working with and alongside some very major projects – it’s doing it on a daily basis. It will be interesting to see how the Metro and the high-speed line can blend their efforts.
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