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Friday, October 22, 2021

Defeating depot dilemmas

Passenger train maintenance depots come in all shapes and sizes and Doncaster-based Trackwork, a specialist track contractor, covers the complete spectrum. Maintaining, upgrading or building from new, the list of depots where the company has worked makes impressive reading. From large sites like Selhurst and Neville Hill to mini depots such as Machynlleth, Trackwork has built up a varied client base, offering a can-do approach on a national basis.

Our railway network is congested; so are the depots that support passenger operations. Most are hemmed in by running lines, boundary walls and urban development – miracles of fitting engineering quarts into pint-sized pots. To carry out track maintenance and small scale renewals, it is essential to work hand-in-glove with the supervisors and shunters who make the place work. The contractor who delivers a nice piece of track but compromises tight train maintenance schedules doesn’t get asked back! At even the most congested depots, a flexible approach and good working relationships with site colleagues gets the job done.

Logistical challenges

Delivering a major upgrade of a working depot firstly requires the client to know what he wants. Then he must think through the operational implications. Depots are miniature versions of the wider railway – a series of connected processes, all of which must interface smoothly for the overall job to go well. Inserting a new facility like a CET discharge, train washer, wheel lathe or shed extension takes careful planning. A lack of space may decide where it goes, but the consequential impact on shunting operations and train movements must be properly assessed. Similarly, introducing new passenger fleets, lengthening standard train formations or altering vehicle maintenance schedules can trigger a need for major alterations at the relevant depots.

Once the building blocks are in place, detailed design needs to be undertaken. As train sets get longer and extra facilities are squeezed into depots within a fixed boundary, the length available for the S&C tends to reduce. This can force the track designer to incorporate features such as tandem turnouts and double slips which require extra maintenance. Carrying out new works within a depot also offers the client the opportunity to renew life-expired track more cost-effectively than if it was done as a standalone item. Interfacing the new track design with the old when the layout is congested can be tricky, with a host of buried services and other obstructions to avoid.

Once designs are complete and approved, budgets signed off and contractors appointed, implementation planning can be done in detail. The client project team, depot operations staff, principal contractor and key subcontractors have to work together to produce a joined-up plan which delivers the job to the right quality, on time, within budget and with a minimal impact on depot operations. No problem there then!

trackwork depot
Track work during the construction of Machynlleth depot

Site constraints

Even where all parties are collaborating and the principal contractor anticipated the job requirements well when bidding, implementing upgrade works within a functioning depot can be very taxing. Unrecorded buried obstacles, an unanticipated change to the depot workload or conflicting views on when operational areas can be made available are some of the potential problems to test the project manager’s resourcefulness.

Just getting the men, plant and materials to where they need to be can be a headache. Some old depots have height or length restrictions on access roads, complicating the delivery of major plant and materials. There is usually little room to store supplies next to the worksite; temporary level crossings or bridges may be required within the depot itself. When working on a confined site, planning the removal of used material can be just as important as scheduling delivery of the new. Although most established railway depots benefit from Permitted Development rights, this does not give the railway operator immunity from Local Authority enforcement action arising from a noise or dust nuisance. This can further complicate the scheduling of work on sites with housing nearby.

Upgrading operational depots while the ‘day job’ goes on around you is difficult, but new-build projects have their challenges too. The granting of external consents or the completion of enabling works might delay the start on site, although end-dates have a strange habit of remaining fixed! The project programme may have to be structured around the delivery of long-lead items like a wheel lathe, causing scheduling challenges and workload peaks for other disciplines. Trackwork project managers are adept at repeatedly reworking their plans to fit in with such pinch-points or critical path items. This can telescope the time available for track laying, which can often only be done late in the overall schedule. In fast-track projects, the installation contractor may not have had full visibility of scope, design and timing when bidding for the job so a flexible approach is essential.

Project portfolio

Trackwork has successfully tackled all these problems and more besides, delivering depot projects across the network. Simon Lee and the contracting team he leads are equally at home working as principal contractor or as a specialist track subcontractor. Indeed, they have built excellent relationships with several top-flight civil engineering firms.

Trackwork has been responsible for track installation on many flagship projects such as the upgrade at Selhurst, the new-build Central Rivers depot for Bombardier and both phases of the Etches Park redevelopment. However, all customers are important so a client with a small or medium-sized project gets an excellent service too!

As well as experienced planners and project managers, Simon’s team includes track design and signalling maintenance capabilities. In addition to ‘pure’ design work, they help clients by carrying out feasibility and optioneering studies. The company’s role as a major supplier of new and serviceable track materials also brings benefits. This, combined with Trackwork’s ability to dispose of used track materials – including creosoted sleepers (some of which are classified as hazardous waste) safely, legally and cost-effectively – means that the company can supply clients with an all-in, best value track service.

trackwork installation
Track being installed at Blackpool's new tram depot

Ongoing maintenance

Trackwork provides an expert and cost-effective depot track maintenance service to many passenger operators, train builders and maintainers. Providing national coverage is useful to clients with depots spread far apart, like FirstGroup and London Midland. The company tailors the maintenance package to the operator’s requirements. Most sites receive a fortnightly inspection and preventative maintenance, with a written report following each visit. Occasional heavier maintenance can be tackled cost-effectively, while a 24-hour callout and derailment investigation can be part of the service too.

The company’s staff are trained to Network Rail standards and can call on expert technical support, along with additional plant and labour when needed. As well as the confidence that basic safety is assured, clients have a clear record of track condition and are offered a range of costed options for heavier maintenance or renewals. Just as with upgrade and new-build projects, the value offered by Trackwork is enhanced by its role as a major supplier of track materials.


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