King's Dyke crisis: Escalating costs, issues with construction, dispute over final bill but does the problem and solution lie in the soil?
PUBLISHED: 14:11 14 July 2019 | UPDATED: 21:58 14 July 2019
Six years ago Cambridgeshire County Council was warned that "unforeseen ground conditions represent a considerable risk to major construction schemes" in an assessment for the King's Dyke replacement crossing at Whittlesey.
It is reports like that - and within hundreds of pages in multiple studies commissioned by the county council - that the seeds to the current King's Dyke crisis lay.
In coming days Kier, having been commissioned to design the replacement crossing, will report finally on whether they wish to build it and at what cost.
A clue to the current dilemma can be found in the decision in the early 1990s to allow 400 acres of the Fens - known as Star Pit, Whittlesey - to be excavated until 2042 for clay.
The pit is near the edge of the project and it is understood that creating a strong enough support to withstand a major crossing requires either a change of design or an unfathomable cost of piling.
Without Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority's support and intervention the likelihood is the final costs of the bridge might have proved prohibitive for the county council's pockets; that could still turn out to be case.
But Mayor James Palmer is angling, not always behind the scenes, to wrest control of the project from the council.
"If Cambridgeshire County Council feels the Combined Authority is better placed to take on this scheme, they need to tell us immediately," he said two weeks ago.
"But we're not just here for them as a financial 'safety-net' when their incredibly poor management of this project gets them into trouble. Either let the Combined Authority take over or get the project completed within budget, but clearly things need to change."
The Kings Dyke crossing project was started before the formation of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and had originally been given a completion figure of £13.6 million.
The scheme - which would end the long delays for motorists at the level crossing - is being run by Cambridgeshire County Council which received a £16.4 million bail-out from the county's mayoral authority last year after the projected cost more than doubled to nearly £30 million.
Latest indications are that the project needs an additional £8.7 million that will take the total cost of the Whittlesey crossing to almost £39 million. But it could be even higher, a far cry from the £8.2m that was estimated when a scheme was first put forward in 2002.
No-one is prepared for the moment to predict with certainty when or if, work can start and most recent reports to the county council refer simply to "contractor delays in completing the design and agreement of a final target construction cost".
It would be unusual, but not without precedent, for a commissioning body such as the county council to separate the design and build elements of a contract and in the case of Kier that may be what has to happen.
The company is in the middle of a financial meltdown with share prices - in one week last month - tumbling by 50 per cent.
A clue to the county council's thinking was contained in this assessment, found in the section of their website devoted to King's Dyke.
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"There is a presumption that the scheme will be delivered as a single package but there is no guarantee that the contractor will move directly from detailed design to construction," it concluded.
"This would be conditional on satisfactory performance and agreement of a construction target price. The contract will give ownership of the design to the county council, so that in the rare event a target price cannot be agreed, it may be used to re-tender the construction."
But it is the Fens themselves that form both the root to the current problems at King's Dyke and to resolving them and as was shown with the construction of Ely bypass, the greatest challenge.
Consultants Mott MacDonald did a sizeable amount of work for the county council early on and conducted a "preliminary assessment of the foundation type required for the proposed structure".
Mott Baker concluded: "The assessment concludes that spread foundations are not appropriate for the bridge abutments and a piled solution is required. The piling activity and full height abutments will increase the proportion of wet concreting on site, which will have an impact on health and safety, and will be a risk for the site force working in the close proximity of the live rail traffic.
"It is important to mention here that the final choice of foundation should be confirmed following a more detailed site investigation, which is outside the scope of this study."
Fenland District Council leader Chris Boden, also a Whittlesey district and county councillor, is right in the heady mix of deliberations.
"It is of the utmost importance that we facilitate a solution and find a positive way forward for the King's Dyke project as soon as possible," he says.
"Mayor Palmer confirmed that he is personally committed to supporting the county council to find a solution for its delivery as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible.
"The mayor's reassurance that his concerns regarding the scheme should not be read as an intention to abandon support for the project will come as a real relief to local residents who just want to see this essential improvement to the A605 at King's Dyke."
The coming few days will decide not only who takes control of the project and who builds it but at what cost and to whom?
A 'build at any price' bridge? Most likely. As the refreshed business case of last September found the need for intervention is critical.
The A605 carries 14,000 vehicles on an average day between Whittlesey and Peterborough and there are approximately 150 train movements across Kings Dyke level crossing per typical weekday, resulting in an overall barrier down time of between 12 and 23 minutes per hour.
The county council has long delivered its view that there is a strong potential for an increase in passenger and freight trains which will increase barrier down time. Proposals for more train paths and longer trains, means that the time and cost implications of level crossing failures will become increasingly significant, is how they've assessed it.
Mayor Palmer is in no doubt about what must, or ought, to happen and is unafraid to posture his position to all and sundry.
"The evidence speaks for itself that the old traditional local authority way of delivering such schemes clearly needs to change," he says.