Laying it on time - Motat's new tram tracks

Jesmond Construction helps create a civic amenity by installing tram tracks between Auckland’s transport museum and its zoo.   BY GAVIN RILEY

Auckland company Jesmond Construction has recently completed one of those rare projects where, because of its community value and the absorbing nature of the work, the degree of satisfaction outweighs the profit. 

Jesmond has become the first contractor in the area, in living memory, to lay a tramline. It has been installed at Western Springs along the 800 metres linking the city’s zoo and the section of the Museum of Transport and Technology housing planes, trains and military collections – known as Motat 2.  

A tramline from Motat 1 to the zoo was laid nearly 30 years ago but the work was carried out by workers under a PEP (temporary labour) scheme and not by a recognised contractor.

Jesmond, one of four tenderers, began work on the $1.8 million tramline last July and completed the project in February. Prime Minister Helen Clark, who had turned the first sod, was due to declare the line officially open on April 29.

While the weather did not pose any problems, the contract proved challenging in several other respects.

Six hundred metres of the tramline had to be built on the site of a former tip (now a park) at Motat 2, and this required the soil to be impact-rolled to 300-400mm depth and tested before the subgrade was approved. The Broon’s impact roller was provided by Taylor Contracting Co of Nelson.

Motat supplied the steel tram rails, which had previously been used in Auckland city and had been stored for decades since the passing of the tram era. After the rails were sorted for compatibility of type and length, they were sent to an engineering company, along with some of the original formers, to be formed and bent into the required shape. Each rail was then numbered to ensure correctly sequenced placing.

“For our team it was like doing a jigsaw puzzle, basically,” says Jesmond head Gary Harris.

“Setting up the tramline was the most difficult part. Motat had sourced a lot of the knowledge [needed] from Australia.”

Another challenge lay in the placing and finishing of the tram tracks because of expansion and contraction caused by variation between day and night  temperatures.

Before each concrete pour Jesmond had to triple check and do concrete pours early in the morning before the track heated up again. Some days the track moved more than 200mm out of line.

The contraction-expansion difficulty was compounded by not only having to bend the track across a busy road (a major traffic-control exercise in itself) but by having to lay it from opposite directions so it met in the middle.

“We had a lot of difficulty getting the two pieces lined up. It would have been much easier if we could have laid the S-bend one way,” Harris says.

“By that time we had the expansion and contraction problems rearing up. When we tendered we didn’t take that into account. We learned the hard way.”

Following the impact-rolling of the tip site, Jesmond laid a bed of reinforced concrete 200mm thick by 2.4 metres wide. Basecourse was then placed to a depth of 200mm, followed by a concrete base three metres wide by 100mm deep with 665 mesh.

Railtrack New Zealand welded the prepared rails into 20-metre lengths and placed them on the concrete base along with turncocks. The welding proved difficult. Many of the welds were thermal but elsewhere far-more-costly arc welding had to be employed. 

After the rails were placed they were surrounded with 200mm of concrete – and that led to a time-consuming and therefore costly task. Jesmond had to form a concrete groove on the edge of the tramline by hand for the tram wheel to run in – a hugely labour-intensive job for which the wage bill was nearly $400,000.

Concrete for the project was supplied by W Stevenson & Sons, which has a long association with Motat.

Electrix placed 29 poles to carry the tramline’s overhead copper cable, which was square and thus difficult to install and tension as it had to be twist-free. The poles and the copper cable had been stored by Motat for many years. Jesmond constructed the huge pole bases.

Traffic lights and signage needed where the tramline crosses the road were installed by CSL Traffic.

Motat 2’s tramline project, which required 11 Jesmond staff and eight from Railtrack, was not your everyday contracting job. Perhaps because of that, the Jesmond team found it both interesting and difficult. 

It was also stressful due to distractions caused by adjacent local-authority and utility-company schemes, which got underway after the tramline job had started.

“The project took a lot longer to complete because of outside influences. They held us up hugely,” Harris says.

But on a positive note he adds: “We don’t do run-of-the-mill jobs. This required abnormal expertise. We think our company is good at that. Plus, it was a big risk and we like taking risks.

“It [the tramline] gave us a lot of satisfaction and will be quite fantastic when it’s up and running. It’s a community thing and that’s probably a reason we didn’t make a huge amount of money out of it. But you do get satisfaction from doing a community thing. It’s a pretty good facility.

“By all accounts the hierarchy at Motat is absolutely rapt with what we’ve done.”

Would Jesmond ever be prepared to undertake a similar contract?

“Yes, I think we would, because we’ve got the expertise,” Harris says.

Then he laughs. “But we probably wouldn’t win another contract like that – we know what it costs.”

Contractor Vol.31 No.4 May 2007