Case study: Vac Ex Tackling difficult to reach excavation/minimising environmental impact


Project: East West Rail
Phase: Bicester to Bletchley
Employer: East West Rail Company

EWR Case study


VAC UK is playing an important role in the construction of the new East West Rail Company (EWR Co) project to create a new direct connection between Oxford and Cambridge.

The new strategic railway line will connect East Anglia with Central, Southern and Western England. Currently, many of the communities along the corridor between the UK’s two most famous university cities lack east-west transport options and have poor connections to the rest of the rail network. So much so, that parts of the new route are categorised as a nationally significant infrastructure project.

VAC UK was most recently contracted by xxxx to provide suction excavation services on the Wester Section of the project – linking Oxford and Bedford via Bletchley. The team was brought in to safely excavate and expose existing power cables without damage while making sure that the installation of new lines to accommodate new bridges along the route could proceed unimpeded.


The programme of works presented several challenges including: working next to a railway line where trains are passing at up to 125 mile per hour; safely co-ordinating the operatives in remote areas and in close proximity to the railway; and ensuring that there is minimal impact to, often prime, agricultural land along the route.

It was particularly important that the chances of a service strike were minimised, not only because the difficult access to substantial lengths of the route would make reinstatement very challenging but also, in the event of a serious strike, the remoteness from medical aid could rapidly complicate any situation where there was personal injury.


The first priority, as with all jobs, was to ensure there was an effective means to safely co-ordinate operation. Throughout the job, three-way radio communications between the controller of site safety (COSS), the vac ex driver and the banksman was used to ensure that there is full, real time understanding of all of the wider team’s movements and responsibilities and to minimise risk.

A key factor in VAC UK’s selection was that vacuum excavation hugely reduces the chances of damage to existing services and utilities which, in turn, minimises the threat of delays and reinstatement costs and, most importantly, the risk to the operating team.

Vac ex also provided an environmental benefit which would not have been possible using traditional excavation methods: much of the new railway passes through premium agricultural land and access to the track would have been difficult without harming the fields. However, the VAC UK team was able to deploy extended hoses that meant the operating team was able to locate the machine as far as 70 metres away from the excavation site.

Extension hoses are available in length of up to 100 metres so the vac ex machines would have been able safely to overcome even more difficult access had it been necessary.
In contrast to traditional excavation, vac ex is effectively a self-contained solution combining digger and tipper – so there was no need to run separate lorries across the field to the site – so less damage to the land, less muck and a reduced carbon footprint.


VAC UK has now been retained on the EWR site for longer than a year and the expertise and capabilities brought by the team and equipment continues to play an essential role in the project. EWR is currently targeted for completion in the mid 2020s.

The extension hoses provided a major benefit on the project allowing the team to access hard-to-reach dig locations with a minimum of impact to the environment. While the excavation is taking place on the left hand side of the image the vac ex can be seen in the right hand of the picture


The selection of vacuum excavation significantly reduced the risk of any damage to existing utilities (the average service strike costs more than £30,000 but can run to much more).
The highest possible levels of health and safety were maintained for the team on site – particularly important in frequently remote locations which would present challenges for emergency aid.

The environmental impact was reduced through the clever use of extension hoses and the self-contained aspect of vac ex meant less mess, less damage to fields and an improved sustainability performance.


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