This article was originally published in: New Civil Engineer 17 April 2019
The £6bn Lower Thames Crossing east of London will be the biggest single road upgrade since the M25 was completed 30 years ago.
It seems appropriate then, that the man who spent almost a decade overseeing the M25’s £6.2bn maintenance and upgrade contract is now at the helm of Highways England’s 23km long Lower Thames Crossing mega project.
Ex-Connect Plus chief executive Tim Jones took on the role of Lower Thames Crossing project director in 2017 when the project was still in its infancy.
Since then a preferred route has been announced, ground investigations have started, and the largest ever consultation for a road project has taken place.
And in February tender information was published in the Official Journal of the European Union to engage suppliers for the up to £6.8bn scheme.
The new six lane motorway link will form part of the strategic road network and run from the M2/A2 junction in Kent, through twin 4km long, 16m diameter tunnels under the River Thames, and via Thurrock to connect into the M25 at junction 29 in Essex.
The crossing will ease congestion on the Dartford crossing around 8km to the east. Regular delays and closures at the crossing have stifled business between Essex and Kent.
The project remains controversial as it cuts through a swathe of greenbelt land. Minimising its impact on the surrounding landscape, environment and local communities during and after construction is therefore Jones’ primary concern.
“The importance of managing the environment is what I’m looking for, the surroundings and the communities,” says Jones.
“I will always be sensitised for design and want to leave something that we’re proud of and is sensitive to the environment we’re going through.”
Construction will involve rerouting two “enormous” gas mains, moving multiple telecom cables, a major archaeology programme, tunnelling through complex ground conditions – including a Victorian landfill site – and connecting into two key, live motorway junctions one at either end.
In October last year plans were announced to lower the noise and visual impact of the crossing on the local community by putting the road into a 5m to 6m deep cutting.
This environmental awareness has also been demonstrated by the project’s work with government design advisor The Design Council, which Jones says brought a “great sensitivity” to the team.
I want to leave something that we’re proud of and is sensitive to the environment we’re going through
Jones says he has learned from working on projects such as the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in east London.
He now thinks the DLR design team should have done more to make the railway fit into the local environment.
“I think looking back at the early days of the DLR, I think we could have done an awful lot of better things to make it a little bit more effective,” he says.
“If you look at the initial railway from Island Gardens to Stratford, subsequent designs changed significantly and they’re a lot softer and fit the landscape much better…. what I’ve taken on board is that we can’t build infrastructure that’s brutal to the environment.”
Air quality challenge
On the Lower Thames Crossing, green bridges are on the agenda, air quality is a major challenge and the carbon footprint is under scrutiny.
Feeding into this, contractors will be encouraged to make “sensible” challenges to Highways England’s standards to improve the project’s efficiency, design aspirations and
“Highways England is open to sensible challenges to doing things better,” he says. “Are our standards too high? They are there to be challenged. You need people who are prepared to confront them for the right reasons.”
Which brings him round to innovation. An innovative contractor is a must he says.
Modularisation of structures, offsite construction over and above what is normal, and finding ways to overcome the challenges tunnelling and building in complex ground conditions present opportunities for this.
“What do I want from my designers? We want them looking at it through a different lens,” he says.
Are our standards too high? They are there to be challenged. You need people who are prepared to confront it for the right reasons
Those working in the funding package for the mega-project were thrown a curve ball in last year’s Autumn Spending Review when chancellor Philip Hammond decided to scrap privately financed PF2 contracts.
Shortly after the announcement, Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan revealed to New Civil Engineer that the project would now be wholly publicly funded.
Jones believes the move will improve engagement with the supply chain as previously some UK contractors had shunned the project, not wishing to expose themselves to PF2 contracts.
The change of funding will open up the market, says Jones. He expects “all the major players” from the UK and Europe to bid for sections of the project.
Funding already accounted for
Although the breakdown of budgets for the second road investment strategy (RIS2) has not been published, Jones says a “large amount” of the funding for the project has been accounted for in the RIS2 funding. While the project is waiting for more cash from the government, this funding will be enough for the development phase and to start the delivery phase, “but clearly not all of it” he says.
Jones is in no doubt that the government is committed to allocating the remaining funds the project needs.
The road will be built using an NEC target cost contract with variations, which Jones says is normal for a project of this size.
How the road will be split into different packages has still to be determined. A decision about whether the construction contract will include a post construction maintenance period has also to be made.
The team is to start ground investigations in the Thames in the summer. It also has to analyse the “phenomenal” number of consultation responses.
On the back of this he says there will be some additional consultations to build on the design. LTC Cascade, a joint venture between Arcadis, Jacobs and Cowi has undertaken initial designs and will take the project up to its Development Consent Order (DCO) application.
The new road is expected to open in 2027.