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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Completing the GNGE

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The 08:55, departing from Platform 1 at Peterborough on 9 March, was a special service. On board were Network Rail route director Phil Verster, project director Neil Lindley and a selection of local politicians and trade press. At its first stop, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Claire Perry MP joined the train.

That first stop was at Ruskington and the purpose of the train was to celebrate the completion of the snappily-named GNGE Alliance East Coast Mainline Capacity Relief Project.

As published in issue 116 (June 2014), this was described as the “rebirth of a back-stage line”, the renewal of the GNGE (Great Northern / Great Eastern) joint line paralleling the East Coast main line between Werrington Junction, Peterborough, and Decoy Junction, Doncaster.

The works at Ruskington station were celebrated by the ceremonial unveiling of a plaque on the new footbridge, one of several significant bridgeworks on the project. The Ruskington bridge is of a familiar steel design combining disabled access requirements with long ramps and stairs for non-disabled access. Cleverly, the bridge blends in well with the station and does not intrude as do some compliant bridges.

The celebrations served as an effective showcase for what had been a very positive project to improve the capacity of the network by pragmatic remodelling and reconditioning of some fairly neglected infrastructure which was very much in need of bringing up to current standards. It was fairly typical of many secondary routes with mechanical signalboxes and signalling, very restrictive speed restrictions and underdeveloped infrastructure with renewal more than due. The story of the line is worth quickly revisiting to put the project into context and appreciate the finished product.

The route

To recall briefly, the Great Northern and Great Eastern Joint Railway (GNGEJR) was established in 1879 by the Great Northern Railway and its rival, the Great Eastern Railway. The joint company built a line between Spalding and Lincoln to complete a new, primarily freight, route between Cambridge and Doncaster, a distance of about 123 miles. The main purpose was to move Yorkshire coal into East Anglia, a highly profitable enterprise.

The route has survived except for the section between March, Cambridgeshire and Spalding, Lincolnshire and the Lincoln by-pass line, both of which were closed in the 1980s. The section between Peterborough and Spalding is now regarded as part of the joint line although this is not strictly (historically) accurate. The Sleaford avoiding line had also been left out of action, leading to increasing rail traffic over the level crossings on the line through Sleaford itself.

With the disappearance of the freight business on the railway, the route gradually succumbed to the fate of many non-main lines: seeing little investment and perhaps maintenance optimisation bearing in mind the traffic on the route. As a further economy measure, the signalboxes were no longer manned over three shifts.

The project

With the current rapid increases in demand for rail transport, both pasenger and freight, that situation has changed. This resulted in a specification to increase capacity for freight and passenger trains on the GNGE line, the route to be upgraded to form an effective freight path removing traffic from the East Coast main line and also providing a high quality diversionary route. Accompanying benefits were catching up on maintenance and renewals and enabling a much improved passenger service with the potential for growth.

The project has been undertaken within the umbrella of the GNGE Alliance and Network Rail and delivered in an alliancing partnership with Carillion, Babcock and Siemens. Additional sub-contract services were provided by Balfour Beatty and Kier, reporting directly to Network Rail. It has been a successful illustration of the Alliance principle.

The GNGE Alliance East Coast Mainline Capacity Relief Project remit was to increase capacity for freight and passenger trains on the GNGE line. The project (valued at around £280 million) was basically a phased programme of renewals culminating in a route that reflected the project management philosophies within the present day rail industry.

The high profile gain is the increase in line speed and an accompanying reduction in journey time – speeds up from 60mph to 75mph for passenger trains and raised to 60 mph for freight, resulting in 17 minutes being taken off the end-to-end time on the route. These times are also related to the fact that, with the need to man signalboxes no longer applicable, the line may be held open for 24 hours in the day, control being from the new control centre at Lincoln.

Sixteen signalboxes were decommissioned though we shall see that one or two will have a continuing life as the local communities did not really wish to see these aspects of their local history disappear. Blankney box remains as part of the level crossing infrastructure at Metheringham and Stow Park is a listed structure. Deeping Saint James signalbox has been “palletised”, in the words of the project director, and awaits re-erection at a suitable site near to its old active location.

Other environmental issues have included the not- unexpected colonies of Great Crested Newts and the need to plan vegetation works, often for improved visibility issues, outside the bird-nesting season. The high profile given to neighbour and stakeholder relations has caused some considerable debate over the removal of trees; however the safety requirements for this have been discussed and seem to be accepted by local people.


DG165437 [online]

Level crossings

Accompanying the removal of the signalboxes was the large-scale modernisation of level crossings on the route with replacement of both whole and half-barrier installations, the latter being replaced with modern half-barrier arrangements. Journey time gains were made from this change to the infrastructure: the old crossing at Tinsley incurred a permanent speed restriction of 10mph but the change to MCBOD format now allows 75mph line speed at the site. Safety has also been improved for local schoolchildren by the replacement of a pedestrian crossing at Heighington where an underpass has been provided.

Of considerable interest is Blankney level crossing by Metheringham Station where the original signalbox structure remains in use adjacent to the level crossing. Government, and the media, has placed much emphasis on safety at level crossings and a particular concern after the Ufton Nervet derailment where several fatalities were caused by an HST hitting a car stopped on a level crossing.

Blankney crossing has modern full lifting barriers and incursion detection which can detect obstructions on the crossing and prevent the clearance of signals on the approach. The detectors consist of a small transmitter and receiver which look across the crossing at low level, there being four looking across the roadway and covering the at-risk area inside the barriers. The system is designed in line with the Network Rail strategy for level crossing safety improvement and is a result of considerable industry development. The system is one of those being considered for further level crossing upgrades as part of the national strategy.

Significant infrastructure work was undertaken here, including the demolition of a house to improve sightlines and gain a better alignment for the crossing. A 75mph speedboard here emphasises the performance gains for the project and the impact of route improvement works including continuous welded rail, formation upgrading and resignalling.

Other work

However there do remain some works to do, inconveniently driven by access restrictions. An example is Vernatts Drain where the life-expired bridge over the waterway requires renewal but access is through a housing development that has grown up since the railway was built. The works are programmed but will require the use of a 1,000 tonne crane and thus, for the short term, a 40 mph speed restriction remains in force.

Bridges have been a very positive aspect of the value management philosophy on the project where several replacements have been reviewed and refurbishment has been found to be wholly appropriate for long term use. New bridge works have been required to deal with and reopen the Sleaford avoiding line which has been reinstated to allow freight to bypass the town, relieving the level crossings that exist on the town route and minimising road traffic disruption.

Mention of bridges also highlights the achievement of a route-long W12 gauge clearance and passive provision for 25kV electrification, an obvious desire for an East Coast main line diversionary route. The route seems, in the main, to be at low risk of vandalism and it is appropriate that rather than strings of steel palisade fencing in this rural area more conventional post and wire fencing has been installed on much of the route accompanied by a cable route which has not required the anti-vandal treatment seen in more urban areas.

Mention has been made in previous Rail Engineer articles of the proposals for a fly under or over at Werrington junction and the route for this has been identified. The removal of a junction at grade at the south end can only serve to make the use of the GNGE line even more effective. Development work and design for this proposal proceeds apace though at this stage no concrete start has been made.

In summary the engineering has been relatively conventional but with much effort being made to successfully integrate works delivery and at an optimum cost. The project has delivered an excellent example of route refurbishment in a very effective manner through a wholly appropriate alliancing arrangement and the tidiness, and lack of lineside clutter, of the route after completion gives every impression of a job well done and a railway brought up to a standard well-suited to the twenty-first century.

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