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Watford – Out of the naughty corner

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Watford junction – the troublesome child of the WCML! It was ever thus. Writes Grahame Taylor

Many years ago, aspiring engineers were bused out to Watford Junction after a few days at the BR Watford training school to gasp at the multitude of track faults. What terrible behaviour! It needed a really good thump. But no matter whether it was coaxed or threatened, Watford Junction continued to sulk and caused a succession of engineers a great deal of heartache.

Its time nearly came when there was a promise of new treats courtesy of the WCML (West Coast main line) route improvements. But the behaviour just went from bad to worse, to such an extent that the treats were taken away when the troublesome child was de-scoped – a euphemism for ‘left to get on with it’.

Eventually, pity was taken on the errant junction with another selection of indulgencies to be dispensed lavishly over a series of extended blockades, due to start in August this year as the Watford area resignalling scheme.

True to form, Watford Junction knew a few strings to pull. It had its grudging admirers and these began to howl with protest at the thought of losing their favourite child for such long periods.

Discontent in Watford

But now it’s time to abandon this metaphor before it all gets too tired, silly and complicated, and introduce Dominic Baldwin whose name last appeared in this magazine in our write-up of the Stafford Area Improvements scheme (the WCML’s other wayward child!). Tasked with delivering the project, Dominic rightly detected that there was discontent in the Watford area and that a review of theDSC_3655 [online] whole scheme might well be necessary.

We’ll take a few steps back at this point and look at how a scheme could have been proposed to shut down this part of the WCML for periods of 16 and 9 days – one in August and the other in February 2015.

Once upon a time, major possession work was done over a series of long weekends.

The ‘new railway’ world considered this to be inefficient and disruptive – which it was. Far better to blitz a project in an extended block – a blockade – became the accepted thinking. It’s something that survives to this day for plenty of valid reasons.

What diversionary routes?

It was the reasoning behind the Watford proposal. Watford had always defeated the planners. For a blockade to work well, there need to be diversionary routes for the traffic that gets trapped on either side. This is where Watford struggles, especially as the major consideration these days is the huge amount of freight traffic. In fact there are in excess of 100 freight paths a day coming from, and going to, all parts of the UK through the bottom end of the WCML.

Detailed and difficult discussions with freight companies and Network Rail’s operating side had boiled the requirement down to an absolute minimum of 42 paths, but this is a lot more than no paths at all. This meant that single line working had to be planned throughout the blockades – a really risky business.

Passengers had to take pot luck with a variety of diversionary options. From Glasgow, the route was via Edinburgh and the East Coast along with the Sleeper traffic. From Manchester it was a trip across the Pennines and down to London via Doncaster. Liverpool involved an excursion via Crewe and Derby and Birmingham passengers would enjoy a gentle trundle through the Chilterns.

Short haul commuters would take their chances on buses – and it was these commuters that were the most vocal!

The ticking clock

Behind all the noise associated with the scheme, the clock was still ticking. This is an asset condition driven scheme with life expired switches and crossings, plain line and power supplies. Deferring everything for another good think was not an option. The possessions and blockades were booked and so, if a re- think was needed, it all had to fit into the same tight time schedule.

Dominic offered to conduct a review and began talking to all the players and stakeholders, questioning and challenging assumptions.

Did all the work have to be done in 2014 or could some go back just one year? The reason for the question was that in 2015 a major bridge deck renewal at Orphanage Road just south of the station would shut the WCML for 102 hours. And the answer was pretty simple.

Only the essential elements

Did all the work have to be done at all? A decision was taken to forego the trailing, slow- speed crossovers in the station area. That’s six point ends and three crossovers.

The drive was to concentrate only on the essential elements of the scheme while, at the same time, building assets that could be maintained more efficiently. Take, for example, the fast/slow crossovers. At present these ladders are fairly short and so it is impossible to tamp one element without there being a need to block adjacent tracks. Four S&C tampers have to be amassed to complete the task in a large disruptive possession. The aim now is to stretch the ladders so that each element of the crossover can be tamped using just two machines.

Blockades? What blockades?

The end result? The 16 day and 9 day blockades have gone. And instead there will be two 54 hour possessions of all lines this year. Two of these possessions will have a further 12 hours of two lines blocked tagged on at the end. A third major possession will be the 76 hour block over the August bank holiday.

DSC_3622 [online]Having opted not to replace the slow speed crossovers, there was still the issue of taking them out and making good with plain line.

Fortunately, there were possessions booked in weeks 10 and 11 to install and recover temporary facilities that would have been used during the original planned single line working. These weekends have now been allocated to the plain lining operation.

The Christmas 2014 block will remain as planned and in February 2015 the long blockade has been replaced by two 54-hour blocks with the 12 hour add-ons. As mentioned before, the Easter 102 hour block for the bridge deck renewal will be used for plain line renewals.

So, that’s the new pattern of possessions at Watford. It has taken Dominic and his team a great deal of hard bargaining to achieve but, despite all the late alterations to the scheme, they found that they were pushing on an open door.

Looking good

For once at Watford, it all starts to ‘look right’. No longer will there be the prospect of shoehorning freight traffic through single line working. And, in amongst it all, there will be an experiment to offer bespoke temporary speed restrictions depending on the type of rolling stock. This exploits the differing braking and accelerating characteristics to reduce the time lost in negotiating the speed reductions.

It’s been a collaborative effort, emphasises Dominic. He gives credit to contractor AmeyColas for the track and OLE works, with designs by Atkins. The signalling design, installation testing and commissioning are by Siemens Rail.

At last, the problem child that was Watford may yet come out of the naughty corner.

Grahame Taylor
Grahame Taylorhttp://therailengineer.com

Structures, railway systems, railway construction, digital data

Grahame Taylor started his railway career as a sandwich course student with British Railways in October 1965, during which he had very wide experience of all aspects of railway civil engineering.

By privatisation, he was in charge of all structural and track maintenance for the Regional Railways’ business in the North West of England.

In 1996, he became an independent consultant, setting up his own company that specialised in the capturing of railway permanent way engineering knowledge using the then-new digital media. As a skilled computer programmer he has developed railway control systems and continues to exploit his detailed knowledge of all railway engineering and operations.

He started to write for Rail Engineer in 2006, and became editor two years later. During this time, he has written over 250 wide-ranging articles and editorials, all the while encouraging the magazine’s more readable style of engineering reporting.


  1. One of the operating problems at Watford Junction stems from a short sighted planner building a station an an office block over a former Northbound station Loop. While demolishing that office block could cause problems, it would be an interesting engineering feat to rebuild the office block to reinstate the fast Northbound loop through the Ground Floor.
    An interesting challenge, but the additional operating flexibility and capacity would be an incredible boon.
    Any ideas how it might be done?


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