The start of 2018 will signal the beginning of the end for the £6.5 billion Thameslink programme. The project team will hand back the railway on January 2, completing the final major blockade of one of the most complex railway projects of the Network Rail era.
Since work began on the project in 2009, there have been around 4,500 possessions, 128 major track stageworks, eight major signalling commissions, including several major closures to remodel the railway that links New Cross Gate and New Cross stations in Lewisham with London Bridge and Blackfriars. In total, Network Rail will have installed 154 new switches and crossings and more than 40 km of new track by the time the railway is handed back in January.
As well as permanent way infrastructure, a huge amount of new signalling equipment has been installed which will become the foundation of the UK’s first ETCS signalled network.
For passengers, London Bridge is the face of Thameslink. The station, described as the first of London’s major main line stations, has been completely rebuilt and re-imagined to cope with future passenger numbers.
“In order to deliver Thameslink, a 30 per cent increase to capacity on the Thameslink route, you have to remodel the railway, completely change the layout of London Bridge,” said Thameslink’s project director for rail systems, Mark Somers, as he prepared to conduct one of his regular walkthroughs of the site.
Mark remembers when initial plans were being drawn up for Thameslink in the mid 1990s. “The problem was always how do you do London Bridge while still keeping 54 million passenger journeys a year,” said Mark. One option would have been to close the station completely for two years. “That wasn’t palatable,” he said.
Network Rail eventually opted to carry out the redevelopment of London Bridge over the course of five years between 2013 and 2018. Until the project is complete, cross-London Thameslink services have been diverted away from London Bridge as the station’s configuration is switched from nine terminating platforms and six through platforms to nine through platforms and six terminating platforms.
Stood in front of a large map of the track layout around London Bridge, Mark explained some the preparatory works that were being conducted ahead of the Christmas closure. The simplest way to describe what is happening around London Bridge is to say that it’s all about removing conflict. The new layout will create dedicated routes for Thameslink, Southern and Southeastern services. Two new major structures – the Bermondsey Dive Under and the new Borough Viaduct – will allow services from the South East to Charing Cross to avoid clashes with trains travelling between Brighton and Blackfriars.
Work was completed on the low-level section of the route (Sussex routes) in Christmas 2014. The focus is now on restoring the high-level station – the Kent and Thameslink routes.
The Christmas closure is, in many ways, the final piece in the puzzle for Thameslink. Lines one to eight will be closed during the blockade. Following the works, the final third of the concourse is due to open and the last five platforms – one to five – will be brought back into service, with four and five becoming dedicated Thameslink platforms. Between January and May 2018, driver training will be carried out through London Bridge before the new timetable comes into effect. The station will be capable of accommodating 16 Thameslink trains per hour (tph) in each direction. However, a phased introduction will see 18 tph travelling through the core route between Blackfriars and St Pancras in May 2018 increase to 24 tph in December 2019 when ATO and ETCS is introduced.
For anyone unfamiliar with the project, the track layout and remodelling at London Bridge is fiendishly complicated – more than half a billion pounds will have been spent on systems alone by the time it’s all over. Mark, however, could recite the new track layout in his sleep, having spent a large portion of his career delivering these kinds of major projects.
Passengers heading south out of London Bridge may have spotted the green crosses spray painted on to some of the old signalling equipment. The markings are there to highlight what needs to be removed during the Christmas closure.
“This is the real challenge at Christmas,” said Mark, explaining the work that will be undertaken to replace the legacy signalling equipment on lines one and two, which will remain in service right up until December 23. “From the 23rd onwards, we’ve got to take all of the existing signalling out because the new signalling on these two lines is in different positions.”
THEN THERE WERE TWO
Joining the industry as an apprentice in 1978, Mark began his career in the signal box at London Bridge. By the time the station becomes fully operational in January, all but two of the signallers will have moved over to the new signalling control centre at Three Bridges. The signal box will remain in use while two other resignalling schemes are delivered, but in 2020 it will close for good – just a couple of years shy of its 50th birthday.
Mark says he plans to have a rest once the project is complete, although it still seems premature to think about life after Thameslink. “I’ve been doing major resignalling schemes and remodelling stuff like this since 2002. As you can imagine at times it gets a bit stressful when you’re trying to always hand the railway back.”
Thankfully for Mark, the load has been shared across his experienced team – some of who were even brought out of retirement to support the signalling design work.
The project has also provided a challenging learning environment for many apprentices, including 12 within the railway systems team. There have been apprentices spread across the project, working on the signalling and track activities as well as in administrative and commercial roles. Two apprenticeship schemes have been created specifically for the London Bridge programme.
Mark added: “We had to have the best possible team that we could get to deliver this job because it is the most complex resignalling/remodelling that’s ever been done on a live railway like this.”
Despite the pressures of delivering such a major programme of work, Thameslink has run relatively smoothly.
“The remarkable thing about this programme, and certainly the thing I’m most proud of, is when we finalised the staging strategy we took that staging strategy, and the master action plan, we took that to the board to approve in 2012 and we’re still on programme.”
When London Bridge officially reopens on January 2 it won’t be the end for the Thameslink team. Shop fit-outs and general snagging will continue until Thameslink services return in May and a project 25 years in the making finally comes to an end.