De-Risking to Ensure Project Performance

The rail industry is in the process of working with train operating companies to deliver its £150 million National Stations Improvement programme that is designed to upgrade over 150 stations across England and Wales.

Unlike headline projects such as the recently unveiled New Street Station in Birmingham, this programme is designed to bring upgrades and extensions to medium-sized stations without carrying out major redevelopment work.

The greatest challenge with projects such as this is to ensure that stations remain in operation, accessible to passengers and safe while work is in progress as Phil West, Consultancy Manager at CET explains.

On the face of it, these tend to be relatively simple projects but the key to their success can lie in the preparatory work carried out before any new plans are put in place. This preparatory work can involve a range of complex, but not necessarily high-cost, specialist investigations that can include geotechnical, environmental, drainage, structural fabric, utilities, paint and topographical surveys.

This process underpins the actual upgrading project itself and is designed effectively to ‘de-risk’ the project – in other words to ensure that once work proper has started, there are no nasty surprises lurking in the background that could seriously jeopardise the completion of the project on time and to budget.

Managing this diverse range of investigations requires a broad range of skill sets both in terms of technical capabilities and project management. Complexity is often increased by the age of the infrastructure to be upgraded – anything from Victorian era onwards – and the purpose of the investigations is to create a clear picture for the architects, engineers and designers of what they are working with.

Drainage is a frequent area of concern on this type of project and often raises serious issues because of poorly maintained drains. Typically, drainage systems have been added to whenever there has been a need to increase capacity. In older premises it is rare to find original records and it more common to find a drainage system that has been cobbled together over a period of years, rather than purpose-designed.

Historically, with works of this type, drainage contractors would only find out what they were working with when they got into the system; by which time a budget and timescale would have been agreed. Any complications arising would inevitably add to time and cost.

The more efficient way is to carry out a complete survey of drainage to assess what exists before planning any improvements or maintenance. A range of technologies is available for surveying surface and foul water drainage systems, ranging from detailed analysis using CCTV system surveys and sonar detection to produce accurate models on CAD drawings.

A similar situation applies above ground where structural investigations are needed before any consideration of alterations or additions to existing buildings. Refurbishment projects could involve a wide range of types of structure from concrete and brick to steel-framed.

By gathering on-site data using a wide variety of techniques it is possible to create a clear picture of the layout and integrity of existing structures before new work is carried out. Again, this means that architects and structural engineers know exactly what the on-site contractors will be dealing with and can plan the project accordingly.

Another area which benefits from pre-project investigation is paintwork to metal structure – bridges, canopies, gantries and the like. Rather like adding to an existing drainage system without knowing what is there already, simply renewing paintwork on metal can be counter-productive and have major implications for a maintenance budget.

Paintwork on metal is there to form a protective barrier against corrosion. If the original paint has lost adhesion, the metal underneath will continue to corrode and the maintenance team be faced with the equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge – a rolling programme of ongoing re-painting each time the corrosion starts to break through.

Another consideration is lead in existing paint. On commercial projects, where existing paintwork is likely to be disturbed, it is a legal requirement to carry out a professional lead survey to gather data necessary to allow a risk-assessment of likely lead exposure risks.

The key benefit of a complete site investigation with structural, paint and drainage surveys accrues from the greater control it brings to the subsequent improvement and maintenance programmes. It enables the infrastructure operator to manage the risk of unforeseen conditions by giving a complete picture at the design stage of what is really there.

It helps to identify where special precautions need to be taken – and situations that mean the project can be treated as routine – and also has the advantage of being independent of the future works and avoids any conflict of interest that may arise with contractors.

Any improvement programme in the rail sector faces a number of challenges. Access is a major issue and whatever work is being carried out has to cater for the fact that there will be an ongoing need to ensure that passengers and staff can gain access, particularly at peak times.

Budgetary considerations also come high on the list, particularly when a finite budget is being spread across a large estate and over-runs can have knock-on consequences for other projects. Skills shortages also need to be factored in, particularly looking to the future when projects like HS2 will require a huge labour resource.

This all argues in favour of ensuring that the tightest of management controls can be applied to every project undertaken. Pre-project site investigations and surveys bring together a package of information which enables sound decisions to be made on the way infrastructure improvement projects are designed and maintenance budgets prioritised. Removing risk in this way enables project efficiencies and savings to be achieved and avoids cost escalation during the construction stage due to unforeseen circumstances.

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