Colas Rail: applying French insights to British urban regeneration


World-leading railway infrastructure company Colas Rail is the principal contractor, and one of nine international partners, of the Midland Metro Alliance (MMA), a project linked to Transport for West Midlands’ ambitious plan to regenerate the region’s public transportation systems. In recognition of its efforts to pool knowledge among British and French workforces, Colas Rail won in the Franco-British Collaboration category at our Franco-British Business Awards last November

Established in 2016, the Midland Metro Alliance is part of a ten-year investment to extend the West Midlands Metro, the region’s light rail network. The project aims to help the social and economic regeneration of the area.

The alliance consists of the West Midlands Combined Authority, a consortium of design experts from Egis, Pell Frischmann and Tony Gee, and Colas Rail as the contractor carrying out the works. Colas Rail works alongside its sub-alliance partners Colas Ltd, Bouygues UK and Auctus Management Group.

“It’s a fully integrated solution with the client, designers and contractors all taking part, which brings all the expertise together,” says Alejandro Moreno, Business Development Director at Colas Rail and the alliance’s first Director.



Promoting cross-channel exchanges

With tramways forming a key part of the company’s French operations, Colas Rail has sought to replicate the successes of these projects in the UK. This has involved the company sending junior employees to work on light rail projects in Paris, enabling them to learn about the latest trends and at the same time offering an exposure to a different culture and ways of working. These exchanges also help the younger generation to advance in their careers in light rail.

“Two of the employees that we seconded to France are now project managers on two different aspects of the project here in the UK – so we really are helping to embed that expertise,” Moreno explains.

“The rail network in France is double the length compared to the UK with different strengths in their application, so in practical terms, that already makes for an excellent potential for the exchange of knowledge between the two countries from high-speed lines to light rail systems,” he adds.

“For this particular project, it was critical to have somebody from the French team to bring their specific expertise and experience in the precast track slab construction,” says Maria Ion, MMA Project Director for the Birmingham Eastside Metro extension, a scheme which will revolutionise public transport provision in the east of the city and connect more of the region with high-speed rail.

From a technical point of view, French knowledge has proved invaluable in actually building the tramways. The ‘delta junction’, a piece of track-switching engineering that allows trams to travel in six different directions, is an integral part of the MMA project. During the construction of the network, Colas Rail has had to adapt this engineering to suit the terrain of the West Midlands. The planning and delivery of this specific piece of infrastructure in Birmingham city centre was chosen as the Outstanding Engineering Achievement of the Year at 2021’s Global Light Rail Awards, beating competition from Spain, the UAE and the USA.

Gaining a French perspective has also helped to improve the project’s green credentials. Inspired by similar light rail networks in France, and the previous Metro extension opened in Birmingham in 2014, the MMA network will make use of grass-lined tracks.

“We’re not just aiming to deliver a Metro system: it’s about building it in a sustainable way,” Moreno says.

“We remain in contact with contractors in France to discuss best-practice ideas,” Ion adds. “In particular, as we seek to address the carbon footprint of our work, we have been following the latest insights on the environmental impacts of our materials.”

Again, the team has had to consider how best to adapt French innovations to suit a British context. “Obviously in a country with a higher rainfall, we need to make sure that the track drains properly, in order to keep the network effective,” says Moreno.

Future Franco-British collaboration

Over the coming years, the MMA plans to expand the Metro network even further. The challenges of Brexit have clearly had an impact on the project, but overall, the team’s determination to keep up cross-channel collaboration seems clear.

“Brexit certainly hasn’t made things easier for us,” says Moreno. “The new regulations are making things more time-consuming and expensive. However, the transition to remote working during the pandemic has actually made it easier for team members to share ideas – so in that sense collaboration between the two workforces has got stronger.”

Ion offers some closing thoughts. “Birmingham is definitely a different city to the one it was five years ago, and the MMA will transform it and the wider West Midlands region even more. Public transport really is the lifeblood of a successful urban area so it’s essential that we can bring a sustainable means of transport to less developed areas.”

Colas Rail is one of Europe’s leading suppliers of railway infrastructure services. It delivers turnkey systems that cover the whole life cycle of the railway

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