Coleraine-Waterside Phase 2 contract awarded

With the controversy well recounted over the escalation of costs for the upgrade of this section of railway line, I think I should start this post with a little explanation well known to those of us who have ever been involved in procurement, whether public sector or private sector.

Basically, and regardless of the skills of your Quantity Surveyor who has their ear to the ground and knows very well what the going rate is for the materials needed for your project, whether it’s an office refurbishment, a new building, or a piece of civil engineering like a railway line, you are ultimately at the mercy of the bidders.

Contracting firms will base their bids on several things.

  1. How much it will cost to obtain the materials.
  2. How much it will cost them to carry out the work in the timescale demanded, in terms of having enough expertise and labour to hand to do the job properly as well as their existing order book.
  3. How much they want the work – if they are busy and are bidding to be remembered next time, they may push prices up so that if they win it, it’s worth their while, but not so expensive that the client will avoid them next time round.  If they have easy resources, they’ll push prices down to undercut others.

In other words, pretty much supply and demand, and with Network Rail having a long and intensive programme of signal modernisation over the next 20 years, the big signalling contractors are busy, exceptionally so.

That, in a nutshell, is why the cost of Phase 2 has escalated to £46.4 million.  Danny Kennedy’s statement to the Assembly indicates that the original total of the bids from Babcock and McLaughlin & Harvey was higher, but was negotiated down, and Arlene Foster as DFP minister has publicly endorsed the decision to proceed, as well as formally approving Kennedy’s ministerial direction to proceed on the basis of public policy (but not value for money.)

So what is in Phase 2 anyway?

There are two main elements to these works:

  1. Resignalling Coleraine-Waterside (Babcock)
  2. Provision of a new station and passing loop at Bellarena (McLaughlin & Harvey)

Trains between Coleraine and Waterside are currently signalled using the Electric Token Block system, using instruments designed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and interlocked with the signals at Coleraine, Castlerock and Waterside. The tokens (a round tablet from Coleraine to Castlerock and a key-style token beyond) are carried in the traditional hooped leather pouches.  In the late 1980s or early 1990s, the increasingly unreliable telegraph wires were superseded by radio connections which are not so susceptible to weather damage.

Bridges, crossings and tickets

Castlerock station was rarely used for trains to pass each other for several years, but a large reason for its retention was not solely resilience when trains were running late and couldn’t pass each other in Coleraine, but rather because of the lifting bridge at Coleraine: if a tablet is out for a train to Castlerock, the bridge will be locked until the train has passed a particular point, but if the tablet is out for a train to Coleraine, the bridge will remain locked until the train has arrived in Coleraine and the tablet put back into the tablet machine.

Waterside-Coleraine would be a long time for a boat to wait to pass through the bridge, which was refurbished as part of Phase 1, and because of the bridge trains aren’t allowed to travel past the bridge and return to Coleraine without running to Castlerock first to get the bridge locked.  In 1932, the bridge operator was expected to be able to open the bridge, let a boat pass, and close the bridge again all within ten minutes.
Castlerock also received a new signal cabin beside the footbridge at the Coleraine end of the station in around 1970 so that the signalman could operate the four-barrier level crossing and sell tickets as well govern as the passage of trains – the old traditional style signal cabin was at the other end of the same platform.

Making sure the first train runs

The 1940 issue of the LMS NCC Appendix to the Working Time Table includes an instruction that the token for the first train from Waterside (and also, at the time, Eglinton, Larne, Magheramorne and Ballycarry) should be withdrawn the previous night in case of overnight block failure, an instruction which I believe has remained to this day, even with the more reliable radio link between the token instruments.  The instruction has changed over the years – in 1940, the instruction was that if the block bells worked, the signalman should use the token taken out the previous night, but I believe current practice is that if everything is in order the token is put back into the instrument and a fresh one taken out each morning.

Moving the crossing point

Modern signalling will potentially allow a train to get a lot closer to the Bann Bridge in Coleraine before the bridge must be locked for a train to pass, but it’s generally considered among rail commentators that it’s a pity not to retain the ability to cross trains at Castlerock. However, I suspect that any outside possibility of keeping it will not only have been eliminated by the cost controversy over Phase 2, but the reality is that removing it is going to save a lot of money compared to having to maintain and provide new signalling for a facility that would be very rarely used, and it is indeed to be removed.

The planned timetable needs a passing loop at Bellarena, where it will sit on the Belfast side of the level crossing (to be upgraded to a four barrier crossing monitored by CCTV) with two new platforms long enough for six carriage trains – I understand that it wasn’t possible to improve the current station, because of the impact on the present owners of the old station building.

Up the technology

Coleraine has a large “eNtry-eXit” route-setting signalling panel covering the line from Coleraine to just north of Slaght level crossing in its traditional signal box, Castlerock has a traditional ten lever frame in a small signal box beside the footbridge, and Waterside has a room with a small NX panel in the main station building.  The signalling panel in Coleraine is to be replaced by a modern computerised VDU system like the one in Belfast controlling the line from Bleach Green to Slaght, but the Portrush branch will be unaffected.

On busy days with extra trains, especially the Portrush Flyer, Portrush cabin is opened up and tablets similar to the ones for Castlerock (but with different notches and holes) are used to work the branch, but the rest of the year trains just carry a single tablet to and from Portrush, and a special key which also unlocks Portrush lever frame bypasses the connection between the tablet machine in Coleraine and the signals allowing trains to run to Portrush.

Tackling level crossing abuse

While having fewer incidents at user-worked accommodation and farm crossings than Irish Rail appear to have (three at one crossing in Co Mayo in six years), abuse of level crossings is a problem which keeps the PSNI and the Translink prosecutions staff busy during the year – ignoring the red flashing lights on camera is extremely likely to land you in court, while it is also a criminal offence to leave gates open at an accommodation crossing, not least because your visitors will find it harder to spot the crossing if the gates aren’t shut in their way.  Part of the resignalling contract will include providing either red/green miniature warning lights or a telephone to check if it’s safe to cross at all remaining user-worked crossings in the section.

So why proceed in days of austerity when cuts are being made everywhere else?

The first thing to understand is that the capital budgets, which pay for new schools, hospitals, buses, trains, roads and so on, are separate from the revenue budgets, and this is a Treasury requirement.  Once money has been committed to the capital budget, which has indeed been reduced from previous years, it can’t be moved back to the revenue budget to be spent on day to day work, providing services, buying textbooks, paying staff, buying medicine etc.  Money can move between departments, and often does, but if money in DRD isn’t spent on refurbishing a railway line, it can’t be moved into fixing potholes and protecting loss-making bus and rail services instead.

The question then comes down to why the quietest public railway line in Northern Ireland, albeit one that has seen double figure passenger growth as with all other lines which is still unprecedented compared to the previous 50 years?

Part of the answer is the impact of the line on tourism (the view from the window on the north side of the train is exceptional), part is that more frequent services generate their own demand, a great deal is because some of the present signalling equipment is very old and liable to failure and disruption to passengers (potentially permanent failure), but the key thing, as ever, is congestion and prestige.

People who use the train from Waterside (or indeed, from the rather closer Bellarena and Castlerock) to Belfast as an alternative to driving are, all other things being equal, unlikely to move to the bus, a pattern observed time and time again when railway lines have closed.  Most of those with the choice of using their car or taking the bus will take their car, and the income would be lost to Translink altogether – see also Crumlin, Glenavy and Ballinderry, which had solid demand for railway services when their stations were open, but a single bus was enough to cover for the remnant of demand between Lisburn and Antrim when the line closed, and I’m not sure there was a great increase in demand for direct bus services from the three towns and villages to Belfast.

It’s partly the inconvenience of having to change mode of transport in mid-journey, in this case changing from bus to train in Coleraine for passengers from Limavady and Castlerock, but also that buses are simply not as pleasant.  For me, the bus beats the stress of driving in heavy traffic, but I’ve always preferred the comfort of the train, and that comfort and ability to comfortably get on with things using the table in front of you while you travel is a winner, even if the nature of our mobile networks is such that the onboard Wifi is a bit patchy.

So, close a railway line 40-odd miles from the back of the queue, and you have to cope with extra traffic on a saturated M2, and that is bad news for those drivers with no alternative but to be there.  Don’t underestimate the power of one railway line.

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