Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Up on the roof

We met beside the statue of Paddington, the cuddly fictional bear who kept marmalade sandwiches in his hat and who was named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel's famous London station. 

Minutes later, clustered in a tiny room in a construction site portakabin, we were all sporting steel toe cap boots, safety gloves and goggles, garish orange high viz one-piece overalls, and hard hats - minus the marmalade sandwiches.

"The safety goggles are Gucci, so guys you look good," chippered Richard Wadkin, safety chief for Morgan Est, one of the contractors restoring Paddington Station's Edwardian Span 4 roof. "It'll be noisy up there. The guys in the roof are grit blasting and needle gunning the metal. Don't worry, St. Mary's Hospital is just down the road."

Refurbishing the Span 4 roof is an impressive way for Network Rail to blast £35 million. Since Span 4 was completed in 1916, it's a London roof that has withstood the test of time - and survived the worst the Luftwaffe could rain down during World War II .

Span 4 is the Grade 1-listed section of roof that covers platforms 9-12 inside Paddington's eastern extension. The original three spans of Brunel's Paddington were completed in 1854.

Paul Futter, Network Rail's top bod on the project, speaking to us on the temporary 'crash deck' built to protect passengers from the roof's ancient glass and metal, explained how new glass and repaired rib arches will allow passengers on the platforms below to bathe in natural light - similar to the Eurostar folks at St Pancras International.

The restoration of the 200-metre long roof should be complete by Christmas. Some 70% of the roof has been stripped already of the old glass and cladding leaving behind the ribs, several salmon red with rust and some in need of very careful repair. Meanwhile, below passenger buy their doughnuts and coffees and board their trains blissfully unaware of the orange army toiling above them.

Futter said Network Rail and its contractors - Morgan Est and Morgan Ashurst - have got to get a move on because Crossrail wants to get started on building its new station on Paddington's western side. Crossrail want to shift the cabbies and their taxi rank on that side over to the east close to platforms 9-12; but, until Span 4 is done, the cabbies can't be moved and Crossrail can't really get going on its Paddington interchange.

At the moment there's a long way to go before Span 4 can be compared with St Pancras International's glittering roof; and even when Network Rail sign off Span 4, diesel fumes and smoke will begin smearing Paddington's new addition. "This will be an ongoing problem until electrification," stated a Network Rail briefing paper left amid the tea mugs on a table in the portakabin. 

(Click on images to enlarge).

Paul Coleman, London, April 2010.