Posted on 24/11/17

Waterloo Station: ‘Failure is not an option’

Having finished refurbishment work on Waterloo International Terminal’s iconic roof, Walker Construction returned to earth to extend London Waterloo’s platforms. Project Manager Darren Fagg looks back.

Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. One of those ‘helpful’ acronyms we all know and love – and never was it so much in evidence than during the project to lengthen the platforms at London Waterloo station.

The largest and busiest railway station in the UK, London Waterloo is the terminus for many routes from the south and south-west of England and, via a network of branch lines and stations, provides commuter services for the area south-west of the capital. Train operating companies using Waterloo manage around 1,600 trains carrying over 650,000 passengers a day – the busiest commuter service in Europe – but, as any regular commuter will tell you, those trains were horrendously overcrowded at peak times. The reason was simple. Platforms 1 to 4 at London Waterloo could accommodate only 8-carriage trains – lengthening them to allow 10-carriage, Class 707 trains would increase peak time capacity by as much as 30 per cent and this would ease, if not solve, the problem.

Although the reason was simple, resolving the problem was anything but. Lengthening platforms 1 to 4 would have been relatively straightforward if the approach to the station was straight – but it’s not, it’s curved, and that’s the problem. The track, points and cabling serving platforms 1 to 4 would have to be lifted and re-laid to allow them to be extended. But the new track layout would conflict with the track serving platforms 5 to 8, and resolving that would mean lifting and relaying more track and revising the platforms to suit. Although not needing any track or structural changes, platforms 9 and 10 would also have to close as the points serving them, some 250 metres downline, were shared with platforms 1 to 8 and would be temporarily out of action. And it wasn’t just platforms and track that would be affected, the signalling infrastructure would also need to be revised. Carrying out the work would close over half of London Waterloo’s 19 platforms causing intolerable levels of disruption for passengers throughout the region.

In 2007, Eurostar moved from Waterloo International Terminal to St Pancras, leaving the five Eurostar platforms disused. The plan to return these to domestic service use, a major task in itself, offered an opportunity for Network Rail to realise its long-held ambition: if at least some of the services using platforms 1 to 10 could be temporarily transferred to platforms 20 to 24, disruption might be reduced to an acceptable level.

In March 2016, Network Rail announced a major infrastructure programme, the £800m Waterloo and South West Upgrade, a plan which included rebuilding Waterloo International Terminal, bringing platforms 20 to 24 back into use and extending platforms 1 to 4 to allow longer, 10-carriage trains to be used. The project would be managed by Network Rail and undertaken by the Wessex Capacity Alliance, a consortium made up of Skanska, Colas Rail, Aecom and Mott MacDonald.

Although partially mitigated by reopening platforms 20 to 24, closing platforms 1 to 10 would inevitably cause severe disruption: there would be fewer train services; those running would be busier than usual; journey times would lengthen; queues would be longer and passengers might have to use alternative stations which would then affect other train operators and their passengers. Incredibly good planning was going to be essential.

As peak-time passenger numbers drop by between 10 and 20 per cent on week days during the summer holidays, this would be the least inconvenient time to carry out the work. In a blaze of publicity, Network Rail and South West Trains announced that platforms 1 to 10 would close for most of August 2017 and that passengers should make alternative arrangements, it even being suggested they work from home or go on holiday.

Acting on recommendation, Skanska, who were responsible for the civils’ element of the project, approached Walker Construction for pre-tender discussions. Although the Kent-based company had worked for Network Rail on many occasions, they hadn’t worked for Skanska who perceived them as something of an unknown quantity. After three presentations, visits to previous jobs, receiving positive comments from past clients and detailed discussions about how they would carry out the project, Skanska made their decision: on Monday, 3 April 2017, with just 18 weeks to go before the blockade started, they awarded the contract to Walker Construction. The key reason supporting the award was in Skanska’s words, the company’s “proactive approach to the job” – having examined the plan, they identified a number of issues and then used their experience of working within the railway civil-engineering environment to suggest practical, sometimes imaginative, solutions to both address them and help alleviate pressure on the tight timetable.

The eight platforms would need varying degrees of work after Colas Rail had removed the track. The island containing platforms 1 and 2 would need to be shortened by some 12 metres before extending it by 40 metres. The second island, home to platforms 3 and 4, would need around 40 metres cut from its length before extending it by 55 metres. Although platforms 5 and 6, on the third island, were designed for 10-carriage trains, the platform 5 side of the island would need to be demolished and rebuilt along a length of 105 metres. Platforms 7 and 8, on the fourth island, would need structural revisions along a 37-metre length. All this would take place as Colas Rail re-laid the track.

The project was logistically complex as spoil from demolishing the platforms and excavating new foundations would have to be removed by train to Colas Rail’s depot at Hoo Junction in Kent, and all new building materials would have to be delivered from the same place. Both removal and delivery services would have to be carefully coordinated around work affecting the track and would also need to be programmed into the station’s already overstretched train schedule. A further ‘challenge’ was that much of the reconstruction material would need to be delivered before work started but, with the track then removed behind them, the wagons would be ‘stabled’ at the platform for the duration of the project. If something was forgotten or underestimated, delivering it could cause serious problems.

Faced with such complexities, Walker Construction’s team, led by Contract Manager Andy Cheeseman, identified and planned around several ‘mission-critical’ elements. Apart from the physical construction aspects and the logistics involved, another key factor would be manpower. To staff the project effectively it was decided to treat each of the four islands as an autonomous site, each would be individually managed with overall project coordination coming from an over-arching, management team. Each island would have its own site-management structure and both they, and the hand-picked teams they were responsible for, would be briefed on their site alone: the idea being to ensure dedicated focus, team pride and an element of competition. However, working around the clock on a 12-hour shift basis would mean duplicating each team, doubling up on every role.

As the plan called for a total workforce of over 160 staff every day, the company advertised the project across its three divisions – Rail, Construction and Building – explaining exactly what they wanted. It was to be a short but very, very intense project where personal commitment to getting the job done was going to be essential. Walker Construction’s entire workforce rose to the challenge allowing the project team to pick those operatives with the skills they needed before turning to Ash Construction, Role and McDonald Contractors, companies that Walker Construction had a trusted relationship with, to make up any shortfall in numbers.

Having been a driving force behind winning the contract, Phil Webb, Walker Construction’s managing director – and someone known to lead by example – stepped up to the plate and offered his services, joining the management team to help deliver the project.

The intensity of the plan meant that staff would be accommodated in local hotels for the three-week duration of the project. Canteen and welfare facilities would be provided both in the arches below the station and in ‘Atlantis’, the vast, three-storey operations block that was to be temporarily erected next to platform 1, giving staff, visitors and the media a panoramic view of the site.

As the blockade drew closer, planning stepped up a gear. Briefing meetings for the site managers and the shift leaders were held both at Walker Construction’s head office in Ashford and on site. Following these, the individual site teams were briefed and a series of introductory meetings held so that everyone knew everyone else on the team. The teams visited ‘their’ island where the task they faced was explained in detail so that everyone knew exactly what was to happen and what was personally expected from each of them. With milestone reports having to be filed every six hours it was essential that the project kept to plan and, in the unlikely event that any aspect started to ‘stumble’, it was vital that everyone knew who to turn to to get things back on track.

A key component of the pre-blockade ECI (Early Contractual Involvement) phase meant that Walker Construction had to build a 16-metre-long mock-up of the new platform structure for feasibility studies, material / technique proving and staff training purposes. Built at Colas Rail’s depot at Hoo Junction, the mock-up was completed within a week and, such was its importance, that Skanska insisted everyone involved with the project spent time at the site, busing in a coachload of managers, engineers and operatives for a briefing session.

At 8pm on Friday, 4 August 2017, the blockade came into effect and the contractors took possession of the site. Passengers braced themselves and the media rubbed their hands in anticipation: the station had to return to full operational use just over three weeks later, at 4.30am on Tuesday, 29 August 2017, the morning after the August Bank Holiday Monday.

Once the track had been removed, Walker Construction wasted no time in demolishing the sections of the islands that were to be either lengthened or revised. Within hours the site looked like a scene from a war movie, the result coming as something of a shock to those used to working in a more ‘relaxed’ environment. But, as someone said, “There’s a plan: it’s a good plan and one that will work if everyone sticks to it – so ‘Keep calm and carry on’!”

Walker Construction’s feverish activity during the 18-week ECI period started to pay dividends. The original plan required the demolition of parts of the existing platforms but the company proposed a variety of alternative techniques which, once tested and approved, could be carried out before the blockade came into effect, reducing risks to the three-week timetable. The first task would be to demolish parts of the existing platforms and lay new foundations for the extensions. However, the existing foundations could be reused in some areas, but only if they were left undamaged during demolition. To ensure this, it was suggested that the existing platform walls would be partially cut through, the cut being about 300mm deep, at a level 20mm below the level of the precast, reinforced-concrete ‘C-units’ that would form the side walls of the new platforms. Once cut, the original walls would break off exactly where intended – demolition would simply remove what wasn’t required leaving the site needing less remedial work.

The platforms are not, as they may appear, built on the ground but on two levels of Victorian arches above London Waterloo’s underground station. Demolition spoil from the platforms would fall into the voids between the arches, this being very difficult to remove and risk damaging the existing arches. To pre-empt this, holes were bored through the brickwork from beneath the brick arches and the voids filled to a predetermined level with foam concrete. Many original walls beneath the platforms were retained and new ones built to act either as permanent formwork for areas of mass fill or provide ready-made foundations for the new ‘C-units’.

With access to the platform inverts (the confined space beneath the platform) being possible during off-peak times, teams of operatives worked ceaselessly to diamond-cut the existing platform riser walls, build new walls, mass-fill voids and modify the drainage system. Working in the confines of the inverts was difficult, labourious and unpleasant. Equipment and material had to be moved through the station by hand, the route involving a lengthy trip under the station from an offloading area, up a ramp onto platform 12 in the centre of the station, down the platform to the main concourse, along to and up the relevant platform before being lowered through a manhole into the invert after which it was physically manhandled to the worksite.

Every proposal had to be thoroughly reviewed and assessed by the Temporary Works Coordinator to determine its practicality and identify any health and safety risks, before being signed off by, first, the CEM (the Contractor’s Engineering Manager), then Network Rail and, finally, London Waterloo station itself.

With demolition complete, construction of the new platforms started. The process was remarkably quick thanks to close liaison with Colas Rail which resulted in a plan that coordinated platform construction with track laying, this allowing full use to be made of road-rail vehicles. In those areas where new foundations were needed, over 200 metres of unique, L-shaped timber shutters were constructed, their shape allowing them to be held in place by the track ballast being laid. The precast ‘C-units’ that formed the platform walls were lowered into position from RRVs and topped with precast reinforced concrete oversail blocks which were themselves topped with G-Tech copers. Kingspan MD146 galvanised-steel formwork was laid between the oversail blocks to create the supporting structure for the reinforced-concrete platform deck that was then poured before being finished with an asphalt-topped screed.

At 8pm, on Monday 28 August 2017, with work and snagging complete, Walker Construction handed the site back to Skanska eight-and-a-half hours before the blockade was lifted and the station reopened.

The company had succeeded in its task, fully justifying the recommendations to Skanska and Skanska’s ‘leap of faith’ to use, what to them, was an unknown quantity. Apart from impressing Skanska, Walker Construction also earned praise from Network Rail, their Construction Review Notification citing “excellent planning” and stating the company had “…achieved excellent production on these platform works due to good planning and a professional attitude in their delivery.”

Looking back over the project it’s clear that, of everything that apparently ‘made a difference’, one stands head and shoulders above the rest – perfect planning.