HomeRail NewsThe other Northern Powerhouse: behind the scenes at Amey Rail North

The other Northern Powerhouse: behind the scenes at Amey Rail North

Listen to this article

In a year that has seen it take on joint operation of the Greater Manchester Metrolink and be announced as a key partner in the new Transpennine upgrade contract, the size of Amey’s footprint in the north has grown dramatically.

Its involvement in the iconic Ordsall Chord installation as part of the project alliance demonstrates a rail business that has matured into the organisation capable of being a leading player in delivering the major, multi-disciplinary works it has long aspired to be.

To some, on paper, Ordsall Chord probably looks like the stuff of nightmares; a concept of such complexity as to have been created to scare naughty rail engineers into eating their vegetables.

The success of the Chord – a unique bridge that connects Manchester’s major stations for the first time in history – has been dependent on the daunting prospect of complex and ground-breaking engineering techniques, delivered by teams that are normally industry competitors; whilst surrounded on all sides by some of the most precious and important remnants of railway heritage.


The reality has been a feat of collaboration and combined expertise to deliver an eye-catching landmark in the shape of the new network arch, and create an extra 40 per cent capacity for a vital artery of Manchester’s rail network.

Whilst the project is likely to feature in many future case-studies, history books and, more than likely, more industry award shortlists, in the shadow of the new arch lies a vital piece of the puzzle; 300 metres of new track that forges the connection between Castlefield Viaduct in Manchester and Middlewood viaduct in Salford, creating the all-important link between Piccadilly and Victoria stations via Oxford Road.

As well as being principal contractor for the alliance, it is this connection that Amey, through its AmeySersa joint venture, has contributed to the next chapter of Manchester’s rail history. Before the chord, junctions were overloaded and unable to cope with the number of trains arriving on single sections of track.

The short, but hugely significant new section between the Chat Moss and Bolton lines now creates extra capacity for a criss-cross of key links between Liverpool, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Birmingham and London including the West Coast main line and the freight traffic between Liverpool’s docks and Trafford Park.

All of this runs alongside the newly revealed and revitalised Grade I George Stephenson bridge, allowing a previously lost piece of railway history to be seen and enjoyed by a new generation of rail enthusiasts.

Something as fundamental as track works was, naturally, going to be a disruptive element to the daily commutes of passengers coming into the city from the Greater Manchester area and surrounding towns and cities. Therefore most of the work was delivered as part of a series of blockades coinciding with the holiday periods – Easter and Christmas.

Christmas blockade

One of the most significant blockades was during Christmas 2016. Like the well-loved beer commercial, where different utility workers come together to make use of a single dug trench in the road, a whopping 1,500 employees descended on the Ordsall Lane junction to take full advantage of the blockade and complete a wide range of signalling, track and civil engineering works.

For AmeySersa’s part, that included reconfiguring the various existing tracks between Eccles, Victoria, Deansgate and Salford stations as well as the installation of one kilometre of new track, and eight new sets of switches and crosses, with a hefty 9,000 tonnes of ballast. This was key in facilitating connection of the Chord to the new layout, ahead of the track being commissioned this winter.

This period saw the utilisation of a Kirow 1200 rail-mounted crane, with 125 tonne capacity, to install the new track, with the use of two Kirow 250 cranes used on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day itself to undertake 25-tonne lifts, both individually and in tandem.

New points and overhead lines were installed in conjunction with this work and line speed was able to be set at a consistent 30mph through the junction.

For the next major blockade, during Easter 2017, significant track realignment was required for the integration of the Chord at Salford. AmeySersa used a real mix of track types to successfully integrate the Chord – S&C, conventional plain line, check rail panels and plain line with guard rails.

By following a regime of enhanced quality assurance checks at each stage, the track team was able to ensure consistency in the standard of work. This minimised the variation to the schedule during the 11-day blockade and ensured works were completed on time.

This methodical approach has also been a key feature in Amey and the wider Alliance’s approach to safety. Amey has been able to play a proactive role in driving a robust safety culture throughout the works.

Safety first

Throughout the life of the alliance, a mixture of visible leadership on site, regular site inspections and clear channels of communications have been reflected in a remarkable safety record.

This has included zero accidents during the Christmas blockade – a remarkable feat during a time where 1,500 people worked various daytime and night-time shifts. A more astonishing number is the 1.5million man-hours worked without a RIDDOR reportable injury.

But Amey and its alliance partners are not ones for complacency when safety is involved. Already, the careful monitoring of the levels of dust produced during this year’s Easter blockade has provided the team with data that can be used to improve future projects.

Best practice has also been set in areas such as mental health, healthy diets, occupational health, work/life balance and fatigue management, thanks to an innovative ‘dashboard’ approach to sharing health and safety critical messages, and the use of biometric fingerprint technology that flagged up early warnings to protect employees against fatigue by being on site for too long.

All of these initiatives align with Amey’s own approach to safety and performance, where it has regularly embraced and leveraged from the latest developments in technology and data to help drive an improved safety culture throughout its business as a whole as well as within the Alliance. In its Northern Hub partners, it has found kindred spirits willing to similarly push for better standards of working practices.

The ‘pure alliance’ model – where success and pain is shared equally throughout Amey and the other principal partners – has quickly established itself as a textbook approach to future works of this complexity.

With each partner having an equal stake in project management, change and delivery, there has been a united goal of achieving best value for money; a philosophy that will set the standard for many joint enterprise projects to come, potentially delivering substantial savings at a time where rail spending is under immense scrutiny.

Line-speed handbacks

With an imminent end in sight to the remarkable journey of the construction of Ordsall Chord, Amey must now turn its sights to how to maximise the experience and learnings from the project.

Amey’s management team is clear that the shared attitude of ‘living within our means’ as an industry – something that has been core to the economic success of the Chord – will remain a mantra for Amey’s rail business going forward.

However this will be delivered in a way that ensures Network Rail and its other clients see a real ‘value-add’ to the work delivered, rather than being cheap at the expense of quality, particularly in Amey’s work in the North.

This has long been a feature in its other partnership with Network Rail, the S&C North Alliance. Quietly and consistently, the S&C North team has incrementally improved the quality of installations to the extent that its ability to hand back possessions at full line speeds of 125mph – something that seemed a distant pipe dream as little as 18 months ago – is now delivered with such regularity as to almost be boring.

Designed to minimise disruption to passengers and train operating companies through more reliable S&C renewals completed sooner, the ‘progressive assurance’ approach, like that seen in the delivery of Ordsall Chord, sees quality, with objectively measured tolerances, built in at each stage of the construction process.

Progressive assurance has turned the conventional way of determining handback speed on its head, paving the way for making high speed handback the norm, creating better passenger journeys and saving more than £2 million in compensation payments in 2016/17, by allowing trains to run to their normal timetable immediately after work is completed.

New plant, new techniques

One of the key features of the alliance has been its ability to tap into the best of European plant and, after much anticipation, parts of the new machine group that have long been on Amey’s Christmas wish list have finally been deployed as part of its work at Liverpool Lime Street station, where track, signalling and platform upgrades will facilitate longer trains and more frequent services.

It was the first time that the plant had ever been used on a live site in the UK – and in incredibly challenging surroundings, with tight curves and restricted clearances – and it performed safely and without incident.

The S&C North Alliance machine group utilised 2 MFS+ hopper wagons to transfer 800 tonnes of new material required to reballast Platform 7. Travelling to site in train formation with 19 standard MFS wagons, the MFS+ wagons detached and activated crawler units to climb off the rail into the excavation.

They received the ballast 60 tonnes at a time from the standard MFS wagons and travelled over the prepared formation to unload in the platform area, which would only normally be accessible with much smaller capacity dumper trucks. The dedicated operators unloaded the material, in a controlled manner by remote control, in front of a bulldozer, levelling to design.


Whilst Amey’s experience in the major projects side of the industry has increased, this year has also seen it flex its muscles in the light rail arena as well, as it takes on its second operating contract in partnership with the international transport group, Keolis, to manage and maintain the Greater Manchester Metrolink network.

This partnership follows on from the award-winning delivery of the Docklands Light Railway together, now into its third year. For Amey, it provides another opportunity to demonstrate the marriage of its consulting brainpower and the operational expertise it has long boasted in the rail sector.

Already, by working in harmony with Keolis to develop the latter’s previous use of data visualisation, the KeolisAmey Metrolink (KAM) team has been able to drive substantial change into the operation of the network by having a clear view of how the network is performing and, more importantly, the impact this has on passengers and their experience of using Metrolink.

Some of this has been as part of a remarkable turnaround from crisis. In what was an operational ‘worst nightmare’, a legacy IT issue reared its head after only one week of operation, causing a critical communications failure that saw the network come grinding to a halt.

KAM’s response was swift and robust, tapping into the engineering might of both parent organisations to replace nearly a kilometre of fibre optic cable and create a network resilience that had been previously absent, achieving a simple goal of being able to keep people moving.

This ability to access a depth of experience in signalling, electrification and civil engineering, as well as other knowledge and expertise in the wider business, arguably makes Amey an attractive choice, both as a sole supplier and as a joint venture or consortium partner.

The consulting capability enables Amey to be a key player in the early GRIP stages of projects and will certainly inform its input into the development of potential infrastructure options for the Transpennine Route Upgrade with Network Rail and their alliance partners, BAM and Arup. These options are due to be submitted to the Government imminently.

Amey, then, seems to have its fingers in every pie. This runs from the securing of enabling works for HS2 through to Amey’s securing of its pre-qualification questionnaire passport from the Department of Transport (DfT) that will allow it to express interest in future rail franchise opportunities.

To the critics, it may appear that Amey is trying to be too big for its boots. But being the first rail infrastructure business to achieve this is nothing to be sniffed at and the DfT states that pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) passports are only issued to those companies that provide high standards of safety, integrity and professionalism, as well as exemplary technical and management abilities.

2017 has clearly been a remarkable year for the business and it looks like 2018 will be another where Amey remains a fixed presence in the big projects of the rail industry.

Read more: Manchester United by Ordsall Chord


Rail Engineer is the leading independent quality monthly magazine for engineers, project managers, directors and leading rail executive decision makers. Head to www.railsubs.com to make a free subscription to RailEngineer magazine or one of its sister publications.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.