Preparing the route

From an office in the centre of Birmingham’s business district, a Laing O’Rourke team is well advanced in delivering the first stages of the UK’s largest infrastructure project.

HS2 is a new high-speed rail line for the UK – the first in a generation – with its initial phase linking London and Birmingham, and plans for further sections continuing northward to Manchester, and towards the Northeast. Scheduled to open in 2026, Phase One of the dedicated line will offer significant journey time reductions on the key North – South axis, but almost as importantly, free up much needed capacity on existing lines.

Laing O’Rourke, working in joint venture with J Murphy & Sons Ltd as LM, was appointed as enabling works contractor for the West Midlands section of HS2 in November 2016. HS2’s Phase One received Royal Assent in February 2017, meaning that construction work could formally commence. An intense period of planning with the client and a myriad of stakeholders followed, with activity now increasingly visible at many points along the route.

“It’s our role to prepare the way - an 80km corridor - for the main works contractor teams to start. That corridor passes through land owned by a significant number of organisations and individuals, and to ensure everything goes smoothly, we must enact the complex agreements made during the Bill process. It’s a complex task and we’re the frontline of HS2 at these early stages,” said LM project director Richard Kirkham.  “As such, we have to keep people updated and positively engaged with the project.”

Since appointment, the JV, in its role as a management contractor, has assembled a team of sub-contractors, ranging from specialist surveyors, ecologists, archaeologists to plant hire and ground works experts.  The entire team must embrace the values of HS2 and act as ambassadors of the project.  In addition to Laing O’Rourke’s overall management role, Expanded is on track to deliver structures and highway schemes, and Select will be supplying and installing extensive site accommodation facilities. 

Over the past year, LM has been at the forefront of delivering HS2’s ecology programme in the region, creating wildlife translocation refuges, ponds, bat houses and other habitats.

“This is a hugely important of the wider HS2 project, making sure that the habitats are sensitively managed in advance of main works construction, and where construction will influence wildlife, we’ve already created alternative new homes for the creatures so that they can continue to thrive,” added Richard.

As well as the rural areas, LM has begun the transformation of Birmingham city centre in advance of the new railway arriving.  The area around Curzon Street will become a major new railway terminus. 

“The West Midlands is overwhelmingly positive in its outlook towards the new line, and all of the benefits it will bring. We have an incredible variety of opportunities – and challenges – but that’s what makes our work here so interesting.”

Around the historic old station there, LM’s contractors have taken possession of a significant land footprint, which is now being prepared for further studies.  It’s known that the land was formerly a burial ground, and trial excavations have revealed the presence of many thousands of human remains.

All will need to be identified, exhumed with appropriate dignity, and eventually reinterred at another location.  The Old Curzon Street station, itself a historically important and listed structure, is being prepared for major refurbishment programme that will see it being an important part of the new station.

In Birmingham and elsewhere along the route, LM is additionally working closely with regional authorities and key stakeholders on the myriad of utility diversions that will be needed, and a number of major highway realignments. 

For LM’s collaboration lead, Elizabeth Astill, building the team and helping to create a dynamic and responsive culture has been an equally challenging remit. “Laing O'Rourke and Murphy working together has been a real success story,” said Elizabeth. “Our companies are similar in culture and outlook, and excellent working relationships have formed quickly.  We are all co-located, which provides a great environment. Adding to that, the city is really buzzing with confidence now, so we’re an attractive option for skilled staff looking for a dynamic project.”

Community engagement remains a crucial part of preparing the way for HS2.  The statutory requirements of liaison with the public are vital to ensure the project’s reputation is never tarnished. But LM has been going the extra mile to build opportunities for learning, creating skills and helping others.

“I’ve been hugely impressed by the spirit of our team,” concluded Richard. “There’s a passion and keenness to deliver that is almost tangible.  People are motivated and really want to achieve.  Away from the day job, we’ve slept out on the street to raise money for the homeless, renovated disused parkland, cycled from London to Birmingham for Hearts & Minds, delivered work opportunities for ex-offenders, and even collected business shoes to help the unwaged prepare for interviews.  These are all activities that my team has volunteered to do, and it gives us a great outlook on life.  Yes, we’re here to do a job of work, but we’re also putting something worthwhile back into the community. That’s a great feeling.”   

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