Wolverton plaque by Phil Marsh

Battle of Wolverton Station 175 years on

Published 16th July 2013

The finances of a mad system?

Wolverton station project.

Rail.co.uk reported on the Wolverton station project in June and now after investigating the scandal with the help of Milton Keynes Council, it appears that those responsible have now been named.

Taking the 40 page Milton Keynes Council (MKC) Audit Report dated March 2013, as a key reference document, it appears that the project was doomed before it began.

Contractors and consultants were used and a project like this involving Network Rail and the privatised railway system the UK, really requires directly employed staff supervision unless the consultants and contractors have a very good trustworthy track record and are experienced in the rail industry.

History lesson for the future

A decade ago, MKC was awarded £370,000 from the Community Infrastructure Fund and also gained a Section 106 Government grant to enable them to hand over more than a £1million to help pay for platform 2a at MKC station. This is where the Oxford trains will arrive and depart in a few years time and was part of the overall £250million Milton Keynes station area enhancement scheme. This was managed and delivered by Network Rail (NR) and its contractors who assumed the financial risk and has worked well in the last five years or so.

Meanwhile station facilities at Wolverton were minimal without disabled access to three of the four platforms and no toilets with the ticket office being housed in a temporary cabin type structure. The old station was demolished in 1992 by British Rail who had been starved of funds to repair the 105 year old wooden station building in the lead up to rail privatisation.

Design by committee

The Wolverton community demanded that their historic station should celebrate Wolverton’s place in World railway history even though it is today a basic commuter station. A local steering group was set up made up from the town council, Parish council, local interest groups and the rail industry who went out to public consultation to see what the community wanted to be provided.

It was decided that Wolverton’s Victorian heritage be reflected in the station building rather than having a standard type station building provided as with similar stations. The initial design proposal reflected the station’s purpose and was rejected in favour of a grandiose scheme where £1.8 million was needed in addition to the original £370,000 bringing the cost to £2.17million. This was funded from another Government provided fund.

The difficulties of changing rail franchises

So the station building was redesigned as desired by the local community and the franchisee, Silverlink providing toilets, a seating area and provision for a retail facility. Planning permission was obtained in April 2008, a crucial factor in the ill-fated project as the train franchise serving Wolverton had changed from Silverlink to London Midland the previous November. London Midland was more than preoccupied with operating a large franchise as opposed to a new station building. So much for the Government suggesting that franchises will work until the last day of their contract!

Local retailers told the Council that the demand for a buffet was not there and London Midland were told that the rent they were asking made any business plan unworkable in any case.

Oh Mr Porter?

The size and location of the new station building reduced the car parking capacity which was madness to allow given the huge growth in rail travel generally and in the Milton Keynes area particularly. London Midland helpfully suggested that Wolverton passengers should go to Bletchley or Northampton for car parking, an extra drive of between 12 or 30 miles a day at peak traffic times, and then reduced the opening hours of the ticket office with the Government’s approval.

The project was delayed for a year while the various contracting bodies wrestled with Network Rail’s collateral warranty demands such as asset protection and safety standards. This was despite the building being not being close enough to interfere with the operational railway.

YJLi infrastructure muddle over money and timescales

YJLi were appointed in April 2011 to construct the new building and they commenced in June that year with completion stated as March 2012. NR insists that only their ‘approved’ contractors may work on railway infrastructure and accreditation is a long difficult and expensive process.

Work on the building but not the car park, was completed in October 2012, seven months late on a project scheduled to take nine months. Rather embarrassingly the station building was formally opened on June 21st last year, somewhat before completion.

We did our bit

YJLi contend that they fulfilled their part of the contract which did not include the carpark. This was done under what is now called phase two of the project at a cost of another million pounds. But as the local authorities and community groups demanded a station building befitting the world’s first railway town taxpayers will obviously have to fund the project.

The council decided not have their own person monitoring progress on-site such as a Clerk of the Works and this combined with the poor tendering and budgeting process by consultants, who no longer work for the Council, meant the scheme was pretty much doomed from the start.

Design changes

Design work was not completed before the tendering process which is always a bad strategy as contract variations then come into force. The tendering process was compressed to under a month and four of six companies invited declared themselves ‘out’ being used to double this time to respond. The contractual process was aimed at being completed in the weeks before the local elections which some view as a suspicious coincidence!

The YJLi tender was non-compliant and the Council audit report says it was heavy with caveats and costed at a shade under £1.6million against a budget of under £1.3million. It also only scored a poor 21.64% quality score out of a possible 40% total for the contract. But they were still awarded the contract by Council officers.

More changes

The Council kept changing the scope of the works and London Midland also changed their requirements and the subsequent time extensions required by YJLi were not challenged. The latter did not allow enough time for Network Rail to approve the design and method statements and these are a time consuming and expensive approvals to obtain.

Franchise changes

London Midland refused to accept the building without their proposed changes being incorporated adding further to the costs. They also instructed YJLi when the Council was the client paying for the building further delaying the project. Then Network Rail helpfully sent a bill for £118,000 for their work to the Council, an unexpected further cost.

Who pays?

It should be understood that the station building was to be given to NR and that they now lease it to London Midland, so just how fair was this course of action? And NR will add the building to its asset base which it borrows against and their debt is now over £30 BILLION pounds. They are also funded by taxpayers to the tune of £10million a day, 365 days a year.

Who did what, or rather who didn’t do what?

In paragraph 7.10.1 of their audit report, the Council says that the contractor was not the most dynamic nor did they initially appear to be fully committed to the works. YJLi also made repeated promises as to better performance the report says, but this did not become evident.

But the picture gets worse! Mouchel were employed to provide a Bill of Quantities for the Council to be used in the tender documents. Mouchel missed out a key area of excavations in their work and was 33% adrift in cost terms.

The station building could have been located 2.5 metres further away from Platform 4, which would have considerably reduced the project risk, but it wasn’t. Nobody considered a sewer which had to be rerouted for 30 metres and the debate between the Council, Network Rail and London Midland caused more delays and added more costs to the project.

Car park charges

This meant that the original tender was out of date and the contractor revised the costs which rose from £75,000 to £250,000. Mouchel had also made some errors in the sewer plans which further hindered the project. Anglian Water also was at fault as their sewer plans were not accurate! The contract signed by the Council limited damages payable by YJLi for late completion to just £59,150.

Mouchel, the report says in Paragraph 9.2.1, should shoulder much of the blame and that the Council is considering a claim of £600,000 against them and a company called SKM who purchased the part of Mouchel involved in the scheme.

YJLi submitted a bill for £2.307million against a budget of £1.1million but the Council paid £1.825million after negotiations were concluded.

Legal action?

BPR architects also come in for criticism as they made design alterations and the Council says that BPR did not keep them informed and so are liable for some of the costs. The Council is looking to cap the BPR bill after professional advice received about the standard RIBA contractual clauses.

The project manager for the scheme was employed by the Council via an agency and may be chased for recompense via legal action once the investigations are complete. He tried to reduce the scope of the project and was also hopeful of obtaining further funding to balance the books the audit report says.

The only company to emerge unstained is Currie and Brown who were the Quantity Surveyors for the construction phase who carried out their role as intended.

History repeats itself

So the Wolverton station building project looks as though it could be settled in Court, just as was the construction in 1834 of the original station after a bout of fisticuffs broke out between his workers and canal workers at Christmas that year over Robert Stephenson’s railway bridge over the Grand Union Canal. This is fully described in the Wolverton 175th anniversary book due out in September.

They said:

YJLi proved impossible to contact and what appears to be their successor company, AMCO were very reticent to talk about the Wolverton project. Milton Keynes Council spent a lot of time with rail.co.uk going through the report and should be commended for trying to resolve the issues brought on as they admit, by poor management.

Thanks

To Milton Keynes Council for their help with this detailed update.

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