The track layout for the various junctions at Guildford, serving routes in several directions, were in need of scheduled renewal as a consequence of a level of underinvestment over a number of years. The switch and crossing work (S&C), in particular, was approaching life expiry and was displaying the inevitable increasing cost of maintenance. Several other work items in the surrounding area also needed addressing.
The Joint Alliance of Network Rail’s Wessex route and South Western Railway examined various alternatives for carrying out all this work. A series of long weekend possessions, of which 16 were estimated to be required, would have caused disruption to normal rail services for an extended period and would have been costly in its stop-start approach, with temporary reinstatements to ensure continuity of facilities after each weekend’s work.
Much better, decided Network Rail, to go for an extended blockade over and beyond the Easter weekend to get all the work done in one fell swoop. This would be done at a time when there would be less demand for the commuter services especially, as many workers would be taking time off for Easter and the school holiday.
Of course, completely unforeseen at the planning stage, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown meant that there were almost no travellers. As it turned out, almost any dates could equally well have been chosen for the works!
The blockade overall was of ten days duration, but with a small component of it given back to traffic after four days. Apart from the renewal of all the S&C and some associated plain line, enabling the removal of five temporary speed restrictions – one of which was hardly temporary as it had been in force since 2016 – advantage was taken of the blockade to renew conductor rail, upgrade 41 track circuits, carry out some improvement works at Guildford station, renew wheel timbers on an underbridge and stabilise cutting slopes at a tunnel portal, along with several other miscellaneous works.
The overall blockade was taken from 00:01 on the morning of Good Friday 10 April until 04:00 on Monday 20 April. The Cobham lines were reopened to traffic at 04:00 on Tuesday 14 April, enabling a limited train service to run from Platform 1 of Guildford station to London Waterloo. This service was not greatly used in practice, no doubt due, in large measure, to the coronavirus restrictions.
For the remainder of the blockade, the possession was defined in a series of seven ‘Parts’, each one being a slight modification of the overall geographical area needed for specific work items or signalling testing, but in essence creating a working area over all five routes radiating from Guildford – to Cobham, Dorking, Haslemere, Reading and Woking.
The work did not involve any remodelling of the layout. Apart from the removal of a redundant headshunt at Guildford station, the track replacement was entirely like for like.
All of the new S&C concrete panels were manufactured by VAE & Partners, preassembled at that company’s Doncaster works, then broken down into 101 modules for transport to site at Guildford by road transport, provided by Walker Haulage and Lawsons Haulage. All of the modules were delivered in advance and stacked at lineside on both sides of the running lines.
The lifting and installation of the S&C modules during the blockade was carried out using two Kirow rail cranes, with the assistance of twelve road-rail vehicles (RRVs). The overall layout comprised fourteen S&C units. The removal of the old and the replacement of the new took place over a 4½ day period, from 16:30 on 10 April through until 02:00 on 15 April.
In addition to the S&C renewal, 1,500 metres of plain line was renewed and some heavy maintenance work carried out intermittently throughout the blockade. Also, 1,200 metres of conductor rail was renewed.
Craig Lightheart, blockade director for Network Rail, told Rail Engineer that the work progressed well and in accordance with the programme with only two exceptions – both regarding engineering trains.
18 engineering trains had been planned in for the delivery and removal of materials. One of these trains was for the delivery of new conductor rail. Unfortunately, because of social distancing rules required for virus protection, this train was prohibited from running. Therefore, the only conductor rail renewal that could be carried out used material that was already on site prior to the blockade.
The other, more significant problem, was that another engineering train, consisting of empty wagons for spoil loading, derailed at Hoo Junction in Kent on its way to site. This required the project team to juggle and repurpose some of the other trains to fill that gap.
41 track circuits were upgraded to EBI type, without change to the signalling design – again simply a like for like renewal. However, nine new location cases were installed as part of the rewiring scheme for the new track circuits.
Slope stabilisation at Sand Tunnel
Instability of the cutting slopes at the south portal of Sand Tunnel had led to a precautionary speed restriction since Christmas 2019. The Easter blockade provided the ideal opportunity to rectify this problem.
The local geology here is such that the exposed slopes, consisting of friable sand, were eroding – slips of loose material were occurring that risked blocking the running lines. The problem existed on both sides of the line but was more significant on the Up side.
The solution adopted was to regrade the slopes and install soil nailing with deep rock anchors to hold mesh down over the slopes.
Permission was obtained from the University of Law, on the Up side of the line, to use its grounds as a temporary access for the slope works. From there, machinery could work from the top of the cutting slope and a scaffolding stairway was installed for staff access to and from track level. The soil nailing was carried out by abseiling with the assistance of RRVs.
During the regrading of the slope on the Up side, an archaeological discovery of significant interest to local historians was made – a sandstone cave made up of several sections ranging from 0.3 metres to about 0.7 metres high. The cave may once have been much larger, but only this small piece survived the digging of the railway cutting through the hill in the early 1840s.
Initial findings by a specialist archaeological contractor suggest that it was a later medieval shrine or hermitage associated with the early 14th century chapel of St Catherine, the ruins of which are situated on the hill nearby. It may even have earlier origins as a site of cult activity, due to its pre-14th century name of Drakehill – ‘Hill of the Dragon’.
Mark Killick, Network Rail Wessex route director, said: “This is an unexpected and fascinating discovery that helps to visualise and understand the rich history of the area. A full and detailed record of the cave has been made and every effort will be made to preserve elements where possible during the regrading of the delicate and vulnerable sandstone cutting.”
Taking advantage of the 10-day blockade, Network Rail cleared its workbank in the area. This included:
- Upgrading point heaters;
- Rationalising hook switches;
- Removing several large trees;
- Commissioning a new transformer in an equipment room;
- Resurfacing Guildford station footbridge;
- Painting parts of the station buildings;
- Replacing wheel timbers on the River Wey underbridge on the line to Haslemere.
Implications of coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak
Obviously, all the planning and resourcing for the actual work and the blockade, including bus replacement services and other alternative arrangements for rail travellers, had been completed long before it would be known that the world would be hit by the virus outbreak. Nevertheless, it was deemed important to stick with the Easter blockade plan, if at all possible.
In the last two or three weeks leading up to Easter, the Joint Alliance team had to review the implications from the COVID-19 outbreak and determine what changes needed to be made to enable the work to go ahead and yet still be in compliance with the government restrictions and precautionary arrangements.
Mark Killick explained what these changes were and related how it had all worked in practice throughout the blockade. He prepared a briefing video to be shown to all staff who would be working on the blockade, explaining the importance of the work still going ahead and why it could be defined as “essential” activity.
It was necessary to change or modify some of the planned activities to ensure that they could be carried out while observing the social distancing rules. Extra supervision would be provided to keep an eye on the social distancing working in practice and to take action immediately to remind staff if they forgot temporarily. There were even “social distancing champions” appointed, who would step in and stop an activity if necessary, then ask for a “take five” before recommencing work.
Back-up staff were incorporated into the planning, in case of anyone falling ill with the virus. In particular, certain specialist and critical staff for whom, in the event of becoming ill, might not be easily replaced, were mandatorily isolated in the days leading up to the blockade. A local hotel was able to remain open to accommodate staff who would have otherwise had excessive travelling distances and the hotel also provided food throughout for those staff.
Two-metre spacings were marked out for signing in procedures, hand gel and good hand washing facilities were provided on site. One example of thorough application of social distancing was at the Sand Tunnel worksite, where access to track level via the scaffold stairway meant that, if someone was descending, a person going up would have to wait to avoid passing at close-quarters.
Staff were encouraged to declare any encounter with the virus, for example, if there was any hint of infection within their own household. In fact, one such instance did occur, and the staff member concerned had to cease working on the blockade for the remainder of its duration.
On a worksite of this size and complexity, a number of contractors and specialist subcontractors were employed.
The track work was undertaken by Network Rail’s own Southern capital delivery track team, working with Colas Rail. On the various shifts, between 50 and 70 staff were on site throughout the S&C renewal works.
Sonic Rail Services and VolkerRail jointly carried out the upgrading of the track circuits, having up to 70 staff employed. Sonic provided the electrical feeds and the systems isolating the track circuits from the DC electric track equipment and VolkerRail provided the track circuits.
Cleshar Contract Services renewed the conductor rail with 12 staff. Osborne, Network Rail’s framework contractor, carried out the work at Sand Tunnel with 20 staff, and the resurfacing of the station footbridge. Directly employed Network Rail works delivery staff carried out the station painting and the wheel timbers for the River Wey underbridge was resourced with 15 staff from the same group.
Kier commissioned the new transformer. RRVs were supplied by Quattro for the S&C work and by Readypower for the conductor rail work.
When rail services are able to return to normal ridership, regular travellers from and through Guildford should begin to notice improved ride quality and reliability with the removal of speed restrictions and the updating of the signalling system.
But they will have hardly been inconvenienced or noticed that the area was given a discreet and well worthwhile £10 million investment, and all despite the virus!