February 22nd 2011
London's Blackfriars Station reopened to the public on 17th January 2011 following an eight-week closure that facilitated the installation of a new track layout - providing future accommodation for two new 12-carriage platforms - and part of an expansive roof spanning the River Thames. It sounds quite straightforward when written in a single sentence. "Yeah, but..." as Vicky Pollard would say, things are rarely so simple.
I was despatched to have a look around, take some photos and write up a story. My guided tour of the worksite left me with the firm conviction that the development of the Blackfriars Station project must be one of the most demanding tasks ever given to a team of railway engineers, designers and planners. The interface between construction, live railway, London Underground, road and river traffic - not to mention the general public - are just some of the challenges the build team faces on a daily basis. The track switch that took place during the Christmas/New Year possession was, according to the Senior Programme Manager, a relatively simple task. But its success was ensured by the preparatory work that had been going on over the preceding 12 months or so.
Let's go back a little. The first Dominican Friars to enter England arrived in 1221. Some of them came to London, settled in Holborn and, later that century, moved to a commanding site near Ludgate. They were known as the Black Friars thanks to the colour of their habits, and gave the area its name.
The first railway bridge to be built across the Thames there opened in 1864. However by the middle of the 20th century it was too weak to carry ‘modern' trains and was dismantled in 1984. Its supporting columns, which can be seen by pedestrians using the adjacent Blackfriars road bridge, are all that remain. Some of these are being incorporated into the new structure.
The current traffic-carrying wrought iron bridge, designed by Henri Marc Brunel - son of Isambard Kingdom - saw its first train in 1886 and served a new combined through station and terminus on the north bank, originally christened St Paul's, but which had its name changed to Blackfriars in 1937. It is this bridge that is being rebuilt to carry the extended station.
Network Rail and construction partner Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering Ltd are completely rebuilding Blackfriars Station as part of the £6 billion Thameslink Programme. The work is ongoing 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, directly employing up to 1,200 people. It will eventually span the river, with entrances and exits on both north and south banks - a feature that will be unique in the UK - offering passengers direct access to Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the London Eye. It will be the first new station to serve the Bankside and South Bank areas in over 120 years.
Two entrances/exits compliant with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act will be incorporated, one either side of the water. The station canopy will have glazed north lights and the intention is to incorporate a solar power scheme that will supply up to 40% of the station's needs. Four tracks will cross the bridge, two being the through routes recently installed, with two others terminating in platforms that will also be capable of handling 12-car sets.
Users of Blackfriars Station will know that the through lines carrying Bedford-Brighton trains had platforms on the west (upstream) side of the bridge, with three bays for terminating services coming from the south, located on the opposite side. The new layout swaps things over, allowing more northbound trains to run through the station and central London in the future without having to cross the lines that will lead to the terminus platforms.
Well before the new track layout was implemented, but an essential part of the enabling works, the bridge (No.410E) carrying the tracks into the old Platforms 4 and 5 was replaced. Completed over Christmas 2009, a full report can be found in Issue 64 of the rail engineer (February 2010). This structure has a completely flat deck so that the new tracks could easily be slewed across during the recent blockade.
To move the through lines over to the east side of Blackfriars bridge, an eight-week ‘run-through' (trains not stopping) period was implemented inclusively from 20th November 2010 to 16th January 2011. During this period, a complex and comprehensive programme of work was completed, designed to facilitate improved access for the complicated construction activities that included the removal of pedestrian routes on the bridge's east side that prevented access to the infrastructure. The following list is not exhaustive but gives some idea of the scope of works -
The italicised items were carried out during a Christmas/New Year blockade by a dedicated team of about 250 railwaymen and women who once again showed their commitment to providing a better railway, with minimal inconvenience to the travelling public, by giving up their festive period. The blockade's workload was completed with some time to spare and the first train to run through did so at 05:08hrs on 31st December 2010.
The 1886 bridge, known as Bridge 410, has a five-span wrought iron superstructure supported by four mass concrete and masonry piers. Once again, it illustrates the excellence of our 19th century railway engineers, designers and architects.
In order to carry out the track realignment, most of 2010 was spent deconstructing the east side of the bridge down to the original wrought iron arches. The project team, particularly the engineers and designers, were pleased to find that the original bridge was in remarkably good condition despite over 100 years exposed to the elements. Minor remedial and strengthening works were necessary at the furthest ends of the arches and to the top flange of the arch behind the outer façade.
Having stripped down the original, a rebuilt bridge superstructure with new spandrels - having a very similar design and appearance to the original - was put into place. New rib arches, designed by Tony Gee and Partners, have been installed. A report on this work can be found in Issue 67 of the rail engineer (May 2010).
I have been in the railway industry now for nearly 50 years and can confidently state that this worksite is the most complex and challenging I have ever visited. Appropriately impressive is the site security - the nearby Bank of England would probably be easier to get into! Of particular interest is the ongoing work to build the new north-bank London Underground and Thameslink entrance, ticket hall and concourse, whilst Circle and District Line trains run safely through the old premises. This has been achieved by boxing in the LUL lines with what is vaguely reminiscent of the elongated Anderson shelter in which I took refuge with my parents during the Blitz. I'm showing my age now!
Another aspect of the job that required a great deal of liaison and planning was the provision of a materials storage compound on the west side of the old LUL station in Queen Victoria Street. Imagine the consternation of local authority officials when Network Rail asked for a piece of a main thoroughfare into the City to be given up for a couple of years! Despite the difficulties, the compound is in place and the traffic flows around it.
Using the River Thames
The execution of any major project in central London inevitably causes problems created by additional vehicular traffic in one of the world's most overcrowded cities. Usually it comes in the form of heavy lorries, so it's great to learn that the River Thames is being used as a thoroughfare for the delivery and removal of worksite materials.
Network Rail and Balfour Beatty, in close consultation with the Port of London Authority and Livett's Launches, developed a daily site delivery methodology in line with other river traffic patterns and tidal flow. Over the life of the project, in excess of 14,000 tonnes of materials will be imported to site, with more than 8,000 tonnes of old deck and pier demolition fabric being removed. It is estimated that use of the river will save about 2,000 lorry journeys. Materials are loaded into the barges at Thames Wharf near Blackwall and have a journey time of about 75 minutes to site where they are lifted into position by a crawler crane sitting on the bridge deck.
The river is also used as a health and safety tool, in that two safety boats operated by Capital Pleasure Boats and aptly named Guard Dog and Watchdog patrol the site 24/7. To date, no rescue incidents associated with the project have been recorded although assistance has been given to a couple of jumpers from the road bridge.
The destination wall
An original part of the 1886 façade was the destination wall featuring the names of 54 places - as far away as St Petersburg - served by the station. At the time, many were business capitals of Europe, highlighting the importance of Blackfriars as a main departure point from London over 120 years ago. The names are carved into individual sandstone blocks weighing 45-120kg.
Designated for protection by the Railway Heritage Committee in April 2009, the wall will be carefully removed stone by stone from its current location in the upper concourse. The lettering will be gilded in gold leaf before the wall is rebuilt at its new location in the common station entrance to the north, near the escalators.
By December, the new station will handle 12-car trains at a rate of 16 per hour, with the station planned to be fully open in the spring of 2012. Four years later, Blackfriars will be dealing with an hourly influx of 24 trains and the expected 10% rise in passenger numbers predicted for 2015. The redevelopment is also recognised as a strong catalyst for economic growth in the local area, providing more journey opportunities for residents, commuters and tourists.
Many thanks to Network Rail's Laurence Whitbourn, Senior Programme Manager, and Communications Manager Nathan Quigley for their considerable help in facilitating this article.