You can do better than this, Network Rail (updated 18 February & 14 April)

I’ve got a bee in my bonnet, and it won’t go away. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Let me explain. Please bear with me.

My home town, Bromsgrove, lies at the foot of the Lickey Hills in north Worcestershire (map). The rail mainline from Birmingham to the southwest (through Worcester and Cheltenham, on to Bristol and the West Country) passes to the east of the town, having descended the Lickey Incline, ‘the steepest sustained main-line railway incline in Great Britain. The climb is a gradient of 1 in 37.7 (2.65% or 26.5‰ or 1.52°) for a continuous distance of two miles (3.2 km)’.

A new station was opened in 2016, and the line was subsequently electrified.

The new electric trains (operated by West Midlands Railways in their bright gold and silvery grey livery) came into service in July 2018 as part of the Cross City line connecting Bromsgrove with Lichfield to the north of Birmingham.

I wrote a blog post about the station in 2016, and updated it last November.

There are three bridges over the railway near the new station, one to the south (at a housing development known as Breme Park that had been built on the site of the former Garringtons Ltd or United Engineering Forgings), and two to the north (one over St Godwald’s Road, and the other over the B4184, Finstall Road), indicated by arrows on the map below. All three bridges are owned by Network Rail, which ‘own[s] and operate[s] the railway infrastructure in England, Wales and Scotland on behalf of the nation. That’s 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges and viaducts and thousands of tunnels, signals, level crossings and points’.

Until recently these bridges were great vantage points to watch rail traffic up and down the Lickey Incline. No longer. During the installation the overhead electrification it wasn’t necessary to raise any of the three bridges in Bromsgrove. However, as a safety feature to prevent anyone leaning over the parapets, steel cladding was erected on both sides of each bridge, as illustrated in this photo to the right. I didn’t manage to take any photos of the bridges with all this cladding, but you can now imagine what it must have looked like. Very unsightly.

Now the cladding has been replaced on all three bridges—for better or worse. That’s why a bee is busy buzzing. Let me show you, bridge by bridge.

To the south of the station, there is a steel and brick bridge that connects with public footpaths on the east side. It’s just a muddy track, but wide enough for a vehicle to cross. From here was the perfect spot to watch trains approaching, at speed, round the bend from the south. Almost all the steel cladding has gone, except at each end of the bridge on both sides. I cannot understand why Network Rail would leave the bridge with four sets of steel cladding, unless workmen will return at a later date to replace the remain panels. Click on each image to enlarge.

In the center and right below, can be seen the view, north and south from the bridge, from the ends of the bridge. On the left is the view south towards the bridge from the station platform.

Just north of the station (close to where the old station was sited until 2016), a concrete bridge crosses St Godwald’s Road. On the top of the parapet has been placed a single course of ‘plastic bricks’. Since the parapet itself is flat, Network Rail made a better job here. It wasn’t so complicated. Yet, on the rail side of the north parapet, there is much to be desired, as the ‘bricks’ don’t appear to be fully secured.

Then there is the bridge further north carrying the B4184 Finstall Road over the mainline. This is actually a concrete structure, but the parapets were faced with pink sandstone blocks that have weathered over the decades, and are in keeping with the surrounding area.

But what a botched job Network Rail has made of placing a course of ‘bricks’ on the top of each parapet. This a view of the bridge from the south (rail) side.

On the bridge itself, south and north sides, it’s hard to believe that anyone signed off on this as a completed job, well done. Just look at how they have placed the ‘bricks’. Let’s look at the south side first.

And on the north side, it’s almost as bad. And in the process, some of the stonework has been damaged.

On one of my walks a couple of weeks ago (on 21 January to be precise), I took a few photos on my mobile and sent a couple of tweets to Network Rail:

To their credit, Network Rail did reply within an hour, and through emails they have now referred this issue to a local team to investigate: Your service request has been assigned to our RAM Structures team to investigate further. They will report back shortly with their findings and your local contact and communities team will be in contact to confirm the next steps in due course. There’s even a job number, #190121-000205.

Nothing has happened yet, but I’ll keep monitoring the situation—and bugging Network Rail—until the buzzing has gone away*.

But why have I become so incensed about this situation? The casual use of resources is unacceptable in these difficult fiscal times. But maybe I’m just becoming a grumpy old fart.

I have no idea what budget was allocated to, firstly, install the steel cladding, and secondly, the replacement panels and ‘bricks’. Thousands of pounds, undoubtedly. How many person-days so far? And, for the bridge on the Finstall Road, because there is a pavement on only one side (the south) the road had to be partially closed (with traffic signals) for about three weeks, disrupting traffic for the local community.

But as I’ve already said, I can’t imagine how anyone could think that this workmanship was acceptable, up to standard. And that goes against my sensibilities of doing something right the first time!

These are the only views now possible from the bridge on St Godwald’s Road. The middle image below was taken from the car park of the old station, and shows a West Midlands Railways train departing from Platform 3, and then crossing over on to the up line. Diesel trains (shown here) to and from Hereford via Worcester stop at Bromsgrove.


* On 12 February, I received a further update from Network Rail, which I reproduce here in full:

Dear Mr Jackson,

Thank you for your recent communication to our National Helpline on the 21 January 2019.

As part of the scope of works of the Bromsgrove electrification, our project team have had to ensure that at all bridges over the railway a minimum of 1.8 metre high parapets have to be in place to protect users of the bridge from the presence of live electrification equipment below. From July 2018 this was permanently energised at 25,000 volts.
In some cases (such as the new Bromsgrove station footbridge and newly-reconstructed bridges in the Barnt Green and Blackwell areas), this height separation has been provided from new. At bridges which have not needed to be reconstructed, we have raised the heights of the parapets, there being three such structures in the Bromsgrove area.

The designs for parapet height extension have gone through a number of approval processes, which have taken some time. Temporary steel screening has been installed at the bridges – including Finstall Road – to provide the necessary separation in the interim between energisation of the electrification and the approval and delivery of the permanent works. Planning consent has been sought and received, with an inert colour incorporated into the material used (GRP).

Volker Rail is the contractor undertaking the works (under subcontract to MPB), and over a number of weekends has progressively installed the cladding and when able, removed the temporary steel cladding. As per the photos supplied by you the temporary gaps left between the GRP panels, some of which were filled in the interim with plywood panels, were of work still in progress whilst the GRP ones were being fabricated.

While I appreciate this may not be the answer that you were hoping for, and there may still be some work outstanding, the work to date is as per the design.

For the rest of your enquiry about the costs involved in this project, if you would like to pursue this information, we would kindly request for you to make a separate enquiry as this would require a Freedom of Information request.

Kind Regards
Community Relations

Now, there’s a couple of points I’d like to make. First, I have never questioned the necessity of meeting health and safety issues by installing raised parapets. I completely see the need for these, while feeling disappointed (along with many others, I’m sure) that the views up and down the Lickey Incline have now been reduced or lost. Second, the reply from Network Rail is ambiguous whether the job at the bridges is a ‘work in progress’ and yet to completed, or whether this is now the finished article, so to speak. If it’s a ‘work in progress’ I’m surprised that Network Rail did not agree with the contractor (Volker Rail) a more convenient start date when all the materials necessary for the job had been assembled. If the contractor has to return that will mean more expense and road closure inconvenience perhaps.


Update (14 April 2019)
While out for a short walk yesterday I decided to check if any more work had been carried out on the bridge on the Finstall Road. I’d noticed that the parapet on the south side had been repaired a week earlier. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that the north side had also now been brought up to standard.

Parapets on the south side of the bridge.

On the north side.

After I’d downloaded the images from my phone, I decided to send a tweet to Network Rail:

Network Rail seemed pleased with my tweet.


 

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