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Improving a major road without closing it

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How a group of companies joins forces in England

It’s one of the UK’s biggest road improvement projects. In a remarkable joint venture, four companies are upgrading the A14. A major road which starts in the east of England and runs on into the Midlands, an area recently dubbed ‘engine of growth’ by the UK government.

In 2014, in a particularly busy area, 71,000 vehicles used the A14 between Swavesey and Bar Hill every day. This number is expected to rise to 86,000 by 2020 – and the road is already prone to congestion now. Also, the A14 is used by much more HGVs (Heavy Good Vehicles) than the national average. The Port of Felixstowe, on the North Sea coast, sees 4 million standard containers coming in every year. More than 2 million of these continue their journey on the existing A14.

“The A14 is the only real link for local and strategic traffic, which is why it is so congested. It’s blocked pretty much all the time,” says Andrew Burder, project manager. “We’re widening it from two lanes to three lanes, while the existing road remains open.”

“Part of the plan for the scheme is to leave the existing A14 as a local road to keep local traffic off the new dual carriageway. There are also plans for 10,000 new homes to be built near Cambridge. The new A14 should be able to cope with the increased traffic.”

Because of the large scope of the works, Highways England hired four of the country’s biggest contractors make it happen. An inspiring example of a joint venture: the companies have combined forces under the name A14 Integrated Delivery Team (IDT) and are working together as one. And there’s a lot to be done.

“There’s a massive amount of earthworks here,” says Mark Lawton, survey manager for the new A14. Indeed: in all, about 15 million cubes of material are required to complete the project. The approach: cut and fill.

It saves a lot of time compared to when you used to go out with a memory stick and put it in the machine.

Walter Langhorn, project manager at Walters Group

Meticulous coordination

‘Cut and fill’ means the ground is made level by moving earth from one place (cut) to another (fill). The amount of material which is cut from one place just about matches the amount needed to fill up the other. Because this method is used, a lot of time and money is saved preparing the site.

It requires quite a bit of meticulous coordination. Across offices on the one hand, and five sections of road on the other hand, the Integrated Delivery Team manages to work together seamlessly. GPS equipment plays an important role, Andrew Burder tells us. “Right now we have 18 machines using GPS equipment. Next year there will probably be 25. If they all use the same equipment, it will be easier for us to control the process, rather than working with multiple software packages.”

“All of our surveyors – six or seven surveyors on every section – and supervisors use Topcon equipment,” says Andrew’s colleague Walter Langhorn. He says the motor graders – machines used to create a level surface – and excavators all have 3D machine control (3D-MC). “It saves a lot of time compared to when you used to go out with a memory stick and put it in the machine, and if it didn’t work you’d go back in and then change it again. Now, if we revise a model, we can change it in ten minutes and the driver will have it even before you could have left the office. It’s a lot quicker, and a lot simpler.”

“I initally collect all the survey information that’s there to aid the design,” Mark Lawton tells us on site. “Then we do the engineering surveying, which is the setting out. 3D machine control is taking the bulk of that out of my hands.”

This way of working makes my life easier, because of its efficiencies and the data coming in from the office.

Mark Lawton, Chief Engineering Surveyor at Skanska

In sync

“We started using Topcon equipment probably seven or eight years ago. SiteLink is in front of the other systems now, because of the information we can feed into it and the live data we can get out of it,” says Andrew. “We can see instantly where the machines are, what program they’re working on, what construction depths they’re working to, which areas they’re in. We know instantly if they’re working on the right model, at the right level. The drivers find it very useful. They can also message amongst each other, so they’ll check models and discuss them together.”

“We transfer GNSS data to the machines. We then use SiteLink to share models with operators and message them. We can see if they’re digging to the right levels just by looking at the screen,” says Walter. He emphasizes the practical convenience: “If drivers need to activate the service or if they don’t know how to select a line or use an offset, they can message us and we can remotely access their screen from our desktops, and change what needs to be changed.”

“Also we can delete and add models so they never get mixed up or use an older version by mistake. It saves a lot of hassle and doing things twice.”

“This way of working makes my life easier, because of its efficiencies and the data coming in from the office,” Mark Lawton summarizes. “The quality of the data is always consistent. We’ve used 3D machine control on several sites before and now we’ve asked our contractors to adopt this. Now we’re starting to reap the benefits of that. Innovation really has become a reality.”

With all these expert companies working together as one, this is an excellent example of modern collaboration. Improving access, reducing travel time, all the while saving time and money, the new and improved A14 will prove to be a valuable contribution to this engine of growth.