How the growing trend of early co-operation between all parties on major works is paying off. By Jon Bassett

Early engagement between clients, project leaders, engineers and all subcontracting elements in significant rail projects has always seemed like common sense to me, and I have seen encouraging signs that this is happening on ground investigation projects in the rail sector.

Ensuring all parties get together to talk through the project as close to its inception, and as far from its start date as possible, benefits everyone in terms of time, stress and costs. By discussing the project at an early planning stage, we can all understand who is doing what, where particular challenges and potential bottlenecks are and how we can work around them. Through effective strategic decision making, a detailed work plan can then be produced.

With possessions concentrated into the shortest possible timeframe to minimise service disruptions, I have seen concrete examples of how this joined-up approach is paying off, allowing all participants to deliver to maximum effect and completing complex projects on time and to budget.

The traditional modular shape of the ground investigation industry, with a client’s engineer in charge and four to five subcontractors reporting to them, has created logistical barriers to engaging with all parties at an early stage. A client requires significant management time to liaise with these separate parties, understand their requirements and co-ordinate them to ensure everything is in place for a possession. This time increases if undertaken later in the project life cycle.

Ground investigation design in a restricted time environment such as rail needs to provide the information required by the designers and be realistically achievable. We are all too familiar with possessions cut short or cancelled at the last minute, curtailing works before even reaching the objective.

Last-minute changes to possessions and works timetabling are problematic but common on rail infrastructure projects. The vital plant, equipment and personnel deployed by subcontractors is often booked up weeks in advance for weekend night shifts, with multiple projects in the calendar to optimise use of the resource. Equally, possessions have to be booked months in advance, so sudden changes to infrastructure works on the railway can be rendered impossible for that reason alone. By ensuring that all parties engage with and fully understand the works from the outset, it is possible to propose alternative techniques, adjusting the order of works or offering innovative solutions. If subcontractors are not engaged in this way, their years of experience and knowledge cannot be used to benefit the project. Clients only award work to subcontractors they judge as competent and experts in their field, so full advantage should be taken of that expertise.

This finely balanced set of interdependencies was one of the reasons behind Structural Soils’ recent launch of a full rail services package. Rail SI+PLUS offers our usual site investigation services (concrete coring, auto-ballast sampling, window sampling and dynamic probing, cable percussive drilling, rotary coring, cone penetration testing and other in situ testing) with the addition of wider site investigation needs that clients traditionally have to source and co-ordinate from different suppliers. Multiple suppliers can increase the chances of failure, cost overruns or other predicaments if first-class project management discipline and ironclad control is not exercised. By offering a single point of contact, we can co-ordinate a wide range of services and suppliers, and our experience, gained from decades of undertaking this kind of work, is seen by some as essential for the successful outcome of complex projects.

In an industry where tender timescales are getting shorter owing to reduced scheme delivery programmes, a joined-up and strategic approach to navigating these dynamic parts of the jigsaw is increasingly necessary to deliver practical cost savings.

I have been involved in many projects where literally every second counts and detailed organisation of all interdependencies has been vital. When responding to minor changes to works because of encountered ground conditions, all parties understanding the project from the outset can mean the difference between a successful shift and one that has to be repeated.

A good example of project inclusion was a 72-hour closure of a rail tunnel over Christmas and New Year for the start of a major improvement works programme. Staff were working day and night in an unlit tunnel with no mobile phone signal. Multiple crews worked under lights in shifts co-ordinating the different activities to keep the critical elements moving. Something as simple as a water-flush delivery on the wrong line could cause major complications for moving equipment in such a restricted location and lose valuable time. Such interdependencies require intricate planning and mastery of the logistics involved.

There also seems to be a growing trend for bifurcation in requested test scopes. Some projects have minimal and simple ground inspection requirements, building the ground condition risk into the construction phase and cost. However, others require more sophisticated and in-depth inspections to minimise the risk, and early engagement and collaboration with contractors is of even more value with a complicated work scope.

Brexit issues and economic uncertainty aside, major schemes like HS2 will continue. Even if major electrification projects are scaled back to a mix of diesel and electric, the industry will still need early, full-scale, close-knit project dialogue to enable the required intricate planning and delivery.

Jon Bassett is Director at Structural Soils.Established in 1964,Structural Soils Ltd is an RSK Group company specialising in geotechnical and geoenvironmental site investigation contracts nationally and internationally through its offices in Bristol, Castleford,Coventry,Glasgow,Hemel Hempstead and Tonbridge.It works with clients including consulting engineers,architects,local and statutory authorities,government bodies,limited companies and private individuals and last autumn launched its RAIL SI and RAIL SI+PLUS services for all aspects of rail-related surveys.