Interviews

23.01.18

Thameslink: Nearing the end of the line

RTM’s Josh Mines catches up with Mark Somers, project director for Thameslink, on how the final stages of the programme are progressing and what lessons the industry can take away from its success.

Network Rail’s mammoth £7bn Thameslink Programme has not always enjoyed a smooth journey. Back in the April/May edition of RTM, there was still a lot of work left to do to London Bridge in particular, as engineers worked on the slewing of Cannon Street lines to allow trains to pass through platforms 1 and 2, as well as the decommissioning of an old signalling hut opposite the station – to name just a few elements of the major five-year project.

A lot has happened since then. Though the infrastructure work at London Bridge was completed in January, allowing for the massive new station to reopen to the public at the same time, GTR has been forced to push back its ambition for 24 trains per hour across London to December 2019 ‒ a year later than planned.

I spoke to Mark Somers, the director responsible for the programme, just before a final busy Christmas break ahead of the project being polished off early in 2018.

“We’re heading into final commissioning for key output 2, which will enable us to open all 15 platforms of the station immediately on 2 January,” he told me. 

“Then the street at the side of the station will open, platforms 1-5 will open for the first time, and Cannon Street services will commence stopping at London Bridge before we enable the 20 trains per hour infrastructure through it.”

Predominantly, this stage involves major re-signalling, including the decommissioning of old signalling systems that control services on the Cannon Street lines, before the final signalling is put in place.

“We have the final track connections to make down near New Cross to connect lines 3 and 4 to the up-and-down Kent fast lines, which is about 180m of track connections to do. Then it’s basically a massive re-signalling and turning over of all the new systems, bringing online the newly commissioned signals, track circuits and points,” Somers explained.

“There’s about 55 new sets of points that come into operation at this stage, so it’s a very big signalling stage.”

Delays to the project

But a project of this size was never going to be completed without a few hiccups along the way. When I asked him about the decision to delay the start of the 24 trains per hour service, Somers’ response is fair and calculated.

“Because it’s such a massive timetable change, all of the operators want to really make sure that everything is gradually approached in terms of getting used to the operation of the railway, how we operate and maintain the railway – and you have a huge number of drivers to train for the new layouts too, as we’re still rolling out the new Class 700 trains,” he told me.

“So you have to try and look at it from an industry-wide basis: you have several depots coming into operation, you have to get trains into their maintenance cycles, make sure that the driver rosters work and that the stations work.

“The history and experience has been that if you try and go for one huge, great big timetable change in one hit, then you can end up having one very difficult period of train-running where we can’t get the right level of reliability and operation. But the infrastructure that we have built for Thameslink will be completed on time,” Somers continued.

The project director was also quick to point out that despite this slight setback, critics should look at the wider picture and the many other targets that have been consistently hit over the nearly five years of works.

“It has been a big learning curve, but what I would say is that if you look at it over the four-and-a-half years since we first started, we have hit every key milestone,” he argued. “Some of them have been easier to hit than others. The biggest challenge we had was trying to do the low level, which was basically the first six platforms.”

Keeping the rest of business up to speed

With a project of this size, there are always opportunities for lessons to be learned and processes to be improved in the future. According to Somers, effective organisation and communication are two areas which have contributed to the timely completion of the scheme.

“Keeping the rest of business as usual up to speed with where the project is was one of the biggest challenges,” he continued. “When you have such a major programme going on, and when you’re trying to run a railway around it with 54 million journeys a year to London Bridge, managing the ‘business as usual’ while all our works are going on is difficult.

“There’s been a lot of hard lessons learned around the fact that you need to step the whole of business up around you to make it effective. This includes how you deal with maintenance and doing everyday activities while you’re still trying to build a new railway, which can be very challenging.

“It doesn’t come as any surprise to us in the project, but it comes as quite a hard thing for the routes to manage in their normal day-to-day.”

Lessons to take away

Somers finished our conversation by saying that if other rail bosses want to learn how to deliver major works in time and to a high quality, they should look at how Thameslink managed it.

“By the time we finish at Christmas we will have done 128 major stage works and nine major commissionings, and we are absolutely bang on programme from when we started,” he described. “You really need to make sure that the plan you start with has realism and is deliverable.

“The additional work we did in the development phase, like early contractor involvement and working out how many hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ballast we would need, was crucial.

“We knew that we would have to have a really robust programme with all of the suppliers in terms of materials and switches and crossings and all that,” Somers concluded. “You have to get that right in the planning and development phase to make sure a project like this is deliverable.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION

W: www.thameslinkprogramme.co.uk

Comments

Andrew Gwilt   24/01/2018 at 05:59

Platforms 4 & 5 should reopen in May. As its to be used for Thameslink trains and to introduce new services that Thameslink will operate across the Thameslink network from May. Including services coming to/from Brighton, Bedford, Cambridge, Peterborough and Luton.

Mel Gardner   09/02/2018 at 15:33

Delivered on time! I can remember when the project was called Thameslink 2000 and the plan was to deliver it in time for the millennium.

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