Robust planning key to Watford renewals

Network Rail’s John Nixon gives RTM an update on the Watford Area Renewals Programme’s Christmas commissioning work.

Work to renew track and signals at a junction connecting the line between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey and the West Coast Main Line (WCML) have been completed on time.

For four weeks, from 29 November to 29 December, engineers worked to modernise the signalling equipment on this part of the network. As part of the Watford Area Renewals Programme, the engineers replaced all the connections from the Up Slow onto platform 10 at Watford, and also onto the Abbey Line branch.

Prior to the work being carried out, the junction was manually operated. But following the works, the junction is now mechanised and will be operated from a signal box in Wembley Signalling Centre.

Wembley signalling centre watford panel

John Nixon, senior programme manager on the project, told RTM: “We’ve also been removing some sidings, and upgrading some of the siding lines there, as well as the connection on the Abbey branch.

“Prior to this work, you had to go through the sidings to get onto the Abbey branch. But with the new track and connection it means you can get a connection straight off the Abbey branch onto the Up Slow. This will significantly help in terms of future proofing the area.”

Not long ago, there were calls for the Abbey Line – which is a single line branch – to be transferred to the ownership of Hertfordshire County Council and run as a light rail concession.

The original proposal was to convert the Abbey Line to light rail for the same cost as the current heavy rail service. However, in 2013, it was announced that the proposal turned out to be “considerably more complicated than originally expected”.

The Abbey Line Project Board, including Network Rail, DfT and the council, concluded that it was not possible to deliver a more frequent service for the same cost as the current service. The DfT decided to ‘step back’ from the plan for light rail conversion.

Buried services

During the latest work on the Abbey Line, Nixon told us: “[The engineers] were taking out the whole of the connection area, which is between the platforms for the Abbey branch for the Up Slow – so all that track was being taken out – and they were installing a new layout. It has been re-designed and that is all going to be new track, ballasts and sleepers.

“Over Christmas we did 150 yards, but in total we’re looking at replacing around half a mile of track when everything is taken into consideration.”

He added that one of the biggest challenges during this work has been buried services. As a lot of the track is old and dates back to the 1960s, in some cases even the 1940s, the team had to do a lot of exploration works to understand what was in the area.

“We found gas mains, water mains and cabling that weren’t in any service records, so we’ve been making sure we know what was in the area where we were digging the track,” said Nixon.

“To do this we used ground penetrating radar. Usually you would use a CAT Scan, but rather than using conventional technology we’ve been able to find these buried services and have hand-dug round them, and tried to trace where they’ve gone to, in order to identify what’s live and what’s been previously decommissioned – but has been left on site.

“We also put up some protection measures to make sure our activities, with all the diggers, didn’t disturb the services.”

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Christmas commissioning

As well as carrying out work on the Abbey Line, the team of engineers from Network Rail, Siemens (signalling) and Colas Rail (track) have been hard at work during a ‘vital’ commissioning period on the £81m upgrade project to deliver a more reliable railway between Milton Keynes and London Euston.

Nixon said: “In total we’re renewing 39 signals in the Watford, and had the last four to do when the line was blocked over the Christmas blockade.

“The signalling commissioning has gone really well, especially in terms of the installation of the assets and all the pre-testing works. After talking to our supplier, Siemens, they said they were considerably ahead of where they would normally be at this stage of a project.

“Also, ahead of the Christmas commissioning period, we’d got all the resources agreed and lined up. That’s usually one of the concerns when you have a Christmas commissioning: sourcing all of your staffing. But that was all done. In fact, we peaked at just over 420 workers in Watford over Christmas.”


Asked how the team had been able to get ‘ahead’ on the project, Nixon noted that normally the signalling and track contractors work as separate entities. But, due to the complexity of the Watford programme, there has been a concerted effort by Network Rail to “forge the two contactors together” with good examples of collaborative working.

“They have been able to help each other out when they’ve had a minor problem; so we’ve had track guys helping the signalling guys pulling cables etc and they work round each other really well,” Nixon told us.

“Because of the complexity of Watford, and the access we have got, there has been a lot more focus on how we’re delivering the works and making sure the planning is so much more robust. We’re conscious of trying to front-load a lot of work because we didn’t want to get into commissioning where you have lots of work that is still to be done – adding more risks. The mantra has always been about ‘planning early and trying to get ahead’ with the programme.”

Losing the central ladder

In the Aug/Sept 2014 edition of RTM, Nixon talked to us about the installation work carried out over the middle three weekends in August. He also discussed the removal of the central ladder, a notable feature of the layout at Watford.

Giving us an update on this work, he said that there is still one point – in the series of points which connect the Up Slow with the Down Fast – to remove. “The removal of the central ladder, in terms of all the activities we have had to undertake, was probably the tightest in terms of delivery,” said Nixon.

“We came very close to the wire on four of the six shifts, but we had to cancel one of the sessions because there had been some operational issues, which would have meant we’d have over-run.”

But delaying this work wasn’t critical for the track or signalling programme, and the point – on the Down Fast – would be left until after Christmas. But this isn’t expected to have an impact on the project’s delivery.

Nixon added that the delay had been caused due to one of the engineering trains, which was bringing the S&C from Basford Hall in Crewe, running late because of other issues on the network, including a fatality. By the time the train would have arrived at Watford it would’ve been two hours late, delaying the handing back of the possession.


Revised working

“Normally the big risk for commissioning at Christmas is the weather, and we had our fingers crossed,” said Nixon.

During the early part of the possession work, RTM was told that the weather had been “really cold” and some time was lost in erecting signal posts due to this. However, as conditions improved, the team managed to pick up the lost time.

Back in January 2014, Network Rail announced a revision to the programme’s works with the withdrawal of two proposed closures of the West Coast Main Line. Originally, a 16-day closure in August, with a following 9-day closure in February 2015 at Watford, had been planned. But a review of the project decided the work would take place over three weekends in August and two weekends in February. Nixon told us that there has been much support for the project from the public, especially after the blockades were changed.

“People are thinking more about the long-term benefits the project is going to deliver, rather than the immediate impact,” he said. “There also seems to be an appreciation that we’ve moved away from a large blockade strategy to the more discreet access because it has impacted on many fewer services.

“This is an approach we will be taking forward, very much so, onto different projects. One of my key roles is picking up on all the lessons learned at Watford and looking at how, with input with our stakeholders, we improve on projects going forward.”

Watford OLE 4

Three major blocks of work

Nixon highlighted that following the Christmas commissioning, which has led to the Watford signals now being operated from Wembley Signalling Centre, the team have got three major blocks of work left to do: two separate weekends in February and then Easter.

“All through those weekends we’re renewing the North Junction,” he said. “We are doing the fast lines first of all, in the February blocks, and then the slow lines and overall commissioning in Easter.

“In addition, at Easter, we are taking off and replacing Orphanage Road Bridge, which is just south of Watford Junction station. We will be taking the track off, removing the bridge, rebuilding it and then putting the track back on.”

The team highlighted that from January onwards, there is going to be some disruptive work in the local area as they start preparing a compound for the road bridge demolition and rebuild, which is the last major element of the project.

“That’s going to be disruptive for the local community and we’re well aware of that and are working with the local councils in dealing with this,” said Nixon. “We are very proactive with our community relations team, as we appreciate the work that we are doing can be disruptive for our lineside neighbours. Unfortunately, we’re not going to keep everyone happy, but that is the reality of life. But if people understand why, when and where we are going to do the work it will, hopefully, maintain that goodwill.”

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(Above: John Nixon)


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