Thanks to its Bard, Stratford-upon-Avon is one of the UK’s greatest tourist attractions and yet, until relatively recently, it had few direct rail services from the capital and only a slow hourly stopping service connecting it with Birmingham. The line south from the town was severed in 1977. Since privatisation, Chiltern Railways has done its best to improve things with a London service that has gradually improved. It’s fair to say that this company has been one of the most progressive TOCs, investing significant amounts of money to improve infrastructure as well as trains and stations.
All the same, this has done relatively little for Stratford until now. The North Warwickshire Line has been the main rail link, coming from the junction at Tyseley on the route from Birmingham Snow Hill/Moor Street to Leamington Spa and Banbury. Stopping trains have relied upon archaic signalling for much of its length and two-thirds of them have turned back at Shirley, reflecting the fact that the line was mainly seen as a servant of Birmingham’s commuters.
A couple of years ago, Network Rail undertook a major project covering the Leamington Spa corridor from which the Tyseley-Shirley section of the North Warwickshire Line benefited. The area around Stratford was resignalled in the Nineties with track circuits and colour lights. That aside, the route has depended upon Victorian absolute block signalling controlled from boxes at Shirley, Henley-in-Arden and Bearley. A similar box at Stratford was removed during the work 15 years ago. Since then that area has been controlled by route relay interlocking (RRI) from Bearley.
Tackling the constraints
Linking the route with the Birmingham-Leamington line is effectively a long chord along which today’s London-Stratford services run. Coming from Marylebone, they travel up through Banbury and Leamington before turning west onto the chord at Hatton Junction. They join the North Warwickshire Line at Bearley Junction before heading south into Stratford. As well as being somewhat convoluted, this journey was further extended by the condition of the infrastructure. Network Rail sorted out Hatton Junction when it resignalled the Leamington corridor but Bearley Junction was still rather dated in track and signalling terms. It was a double junction incorporating old bullhead switch diamonds – a track form guaranteed to challenge modern maintainers. A ‘condition of track’ speed restriction of 20mph had been in place for some time, further reducing a PSR of 35mph.
The good news is that things are changing fast. The latest stage of the resignalling and remodelling plans is tackling these remaining constraints. I visited the project office to meet three members of Network Rail’s project team and find out what’s happening. Helen Guest is Senior Project Engineer for the resignalling whilst Russell Cordingley is Designated Project Engineer, Shirley-Stratford Resignalling. Helen has been involved here for about four years; Russell though was recruited as recently as November 2008 through the ‘conversion engineer’ programme and is pleased to be delivering such a significant project so soon after joining the industry. These two took a good part of their day at a very busy time to describe the work to me. They were joined by Jim Davies, Track Project Manager for the scheme.
The whole route from Shirley to Stratford-upon-Avon, together with the Bearley- Claverdon section of the line to Hatton, is being resignalled and remodelled. One step sees the absolute block signalling replaced by the use of axle counters, with the old semaphores giving way to LED colour light signals – 26 of which are being installed. At the same time, the previously resignalled area at Stratford has been further modernised by changing the six signal heads involved for LED versions. Here, track circuit block is retained.
Control of this whole area has been transferred to the West Midlands Signalling Centre (WMSC) at Saltley, using a WestCAD/Invensys VDU system linking the new infrastructure into an existing workstation. Nine user-worked level crossings are affected and control of these has also been transferred. The Stratford area RRI has been brought into the same workstation via a TDM system. As a result of this centralised control, the three existing signal boxes have been removed. Telecoms rely on Network Rail’s FTN system and radio telephony uses the IVRS system (with NRN back-up) pending the eventual arrival of GSM-R. A booster has recently been fitted to overcome poor reception in the Bearley-Stratford section.
The major changes at Bearley necessitated a significant blockade. As the Birmingham line carries many students on weekdays during term time, it was decided that this closure must coincide with a school holiday period. October half-term week – between Saturday 23rd and Sunday 31st October – was chosen, with the line blocked between Shirley and Stratford. The project office at Danzey Station was conveniently located in the middle of this area. Passengers could enjoy the autumnal splendour of Warwickshire as they rode the replacement buses.
The blockade saw the remodelling of Bearley Junction which now consists of a single lead connection to the Hatton line, with a facing crossover between the two tracks of the North Warwickshire. Eight existing S&C units have been reduced to just three. Turnout speed has increased to 50mph, bringing big improvements for London services. The new and less complex layout should also mean improved reliability and reduced maintenance costs. Further benefits will flow from the relaying of 800m of plain line towards Hatton. The nine-day blockade permitted the installation and commissioning of the track work as well as testing of the new signalling, culminating in a 54-hour ‘wheels free’ period to commission it.
All these changes have necessitated improved electrical power supplies. The existing supply at Bearley has had to be upgraded whilst an entirely new one has been installed at Earlswood.
Changes further afield
Many additional benefits are being provided by the project. At Stratford Station, the old layout meant that services to/from Birmingham could only directly access Platform 1. A new crossover has been provided that allows these trains to also use the other two platforms.
Centro, the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority, has been experiencing difficulties with road congestion and parking at Shirley where, because of the track layout, two out of the three hourly services from Birmingham have turned back, with only one per hour continuing to Stratford. But the built-up area around the station has limited expansion of the car park and improvements to the local road layout. As a result, Centro wanted to extend services to Whitlocks End, the next station towards Stratford, where there was room for proper ‘park and ride’ facilities. The project has addressed this by providing a new crossover there whilst removing the one at Shirley and the Down sidings.
Further Centro aspirations include an eventual move to six-car trains. This will require platform extensions but the project has taken account of this by designing the new infrastructure accordingly.
Other works have delivered improvements or tidied up old and unwanted infrastructure. The S&C at Henley-in-Arden, which was no longer used, has been removed. At Stratford, advantage was taken of the blockade and the presence of Kirow rail cranes for the S&C works to renew the longitudinal timbers on two underbridges, improving the track alignment as well as renewing the assets.
Invensys has been principal contractor for the signalling scheme, with Babcock Rail performing the equivalent role for the track works. Signalling design up to the point of approval in principle was undertaken in-house by Network Rail’s own team. P-way design was carried out by URS/Scott Wilson. The project began in 2006 with the GRIP Stage 2 and the start of the design work. Its anticipated final cost is £23 million, of which about £15 million will have been spent on the resignalling works.
Track engineers will note the innovative installation methods employed during the project. The Whitlocks End crossover was the UK’s first version 3.0.2 Level 7 modular S&C installation. It involved formation renewal, with the crossover units delivered using tilting wagons and lifted into place by rail-mounted Kirow cranes. Through bearers have to be halved to fit the loading gauge when on the wagons so bearer ties were used to permanently connect the two parts during site assembly. Installation was carried out over four consecutive nights – one for each line’s formation work and another for each line’s S&C.
Level 7 means that signalling for the new S&C was not connected at the same time as the track laying – it was instead installed, tested and commissioned separately, with the S&C clipped out of use. Level 8 installations will be ‘plug and play’, with the signalling commissioned at the same time as the track works.
The same approach was adopted for the Bearley crossover but at Stratford the radius of the main line was such that the switch assemblies could not be fitted on the tilting wagons within loading gauge and had to be built up on site alongside the line. The wagons were however used to deliver the remainder of the S&C.
Job well done
Jim was extremely complimentary about the team that worked on the project, particularly the way people had cooperated to deal with problems and delays when they arose. As well as his Network Rail colleagues, he made particular mention of the teams from Invensys, Babcock Rail, DB Schenker and their various suppliers, as well as Network Rail’s Infrastructure Group Control at Milton Keynes. Jim told me that one of his team’s maxims is “We will work together to make things happen”. It sounds as if they do!
The work was commissioned on budget and the route returned to service at 0220hrs on Monday 1st November, two hours ahead of schedule.