Published 25th February 2013
Network Rail (NR) has been told to improve the resilience of Britain’s railways in adverse weather conditions such as snow and heavy rain, said the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) in its latest analysis of performance on the UK rail network.
In the last similar report published in December 2012, ORR reported that NR had collaborated with train operators developing and delivering better plans to improve punctuality. But this improvement had slipped in the intervening three months in some areas during a difficult winter the latest report says. Although it is debatable if this winter has been worse than others recently
Possibly because Scottish winter weather is more predictable, renewed planning and coordination between NR and train operators has produced a better performing railways this winter.
However, performance has worsened on key parts of the rail network elsewhere with overall punctuality on long distance services at 88.3% and for London and South East services, 91.4%. Both are well shy of targets set by ORR which means NR could be fined millions of pounds despite good flood recovery responses on parts of the network. The fine is calculated by £1.5 million per 0.1 percentage point it drops below the 92%.
The NR target is 92% for long distance services arriving within ten minutes of the scheduled time and under ORR’s order made earlier this year, if the targets are not reached for 2013-14. ORR is now looking at if NR has done all it can to improve performance on London and South East services.
Whether this includes the reasons as to why NR had to use West Coast Railway Company diesels to keep commuter routes open on the Southern network is not known. They de-iced and kept routes clear of snow in January after the contracted companies could not provide resources to do the job!
Overrunning engineering works plagued the railways until a few years ago and this spectre returned over Christmas and this combined with some basic operational planning mistakes causing delays.
Richard Price, ORR Chief Executive, said: "Passengers need to be able to rely on the railways to get them from ‘A to B’ throughout the whole year. However, Network Rail’s operational performance on parts of Britain’s rail network has been poor over recent months. ORR is concerned that the company is losing touch with key performance targets as passengers again suffered poor performance during challenging weather conditions.
"We are absolutely determined to see the resilience of Britain’s railways improve, especially in bad weather. The strong performance of the railways in Scotland - supported by excellent collaboration and planning between Network Rail and train operators - shows that our railways can deliver when conditions get tough, where it achieved nearly 92% punctuality in difficult weather with a complex network and varied geography.
"ORR will be reviewing whether the company can currently work and plan better, and the Governments’ proposed significant investment of £37.5bn from 2014-19 will enable Network Rail to deliver a railway that can stand up to conditions like heavy rain and snow in the future. The real prize is to achieve the punctuality that customers want and what Network Rail has been paid to deliver."
The Public Performance Measure (PPM), or punctuality in England and Wales was 88%, two percentage points worse than expected and 1.4 percentage points worse than a year ago.
NR’s long distance routes are not recovering punctuality ending the latest quarter three percentage points lower than anticipated and forecasts that by the end of the 2013/4 year will be two percentage points short of the 92% punctuality level it was funded by ORR to deliver.
NR also expects to be one percentage point short of its 93% punctuality target for the London and South East sector. ORR has posed the question as how will NR be able to deliver its promises in the next five year funding period from April 2014 given worsening performance.
The ORR is concerned about NR’s ability to deal with recent poor weather and is actively debating this with them and has asked for a full account about how it will improve its performance.
It’s not confirmed but senior railway operating staff suspect that on the East Coast Main Line the ceramic insulators could be to blame for the ongoing overhead wire incidents. The electrification was carried out at minimum cost 25 years ago when investment funds were tightly controlled by the Government so British Rail did the job as cheaply as possible, never envisaging the volumes of traffic that run today.
When insulators deteriorate, water ingress takes place and then when temperatures fall below freezing, the resultant ice cracks the ceramics causing a failure. The overhead wires are also strung across all four tracks from one support which means that if there is a fault, all lines become blocked automatically.
The West Coast Main Line has its overhead wires supported across the tracks in a different and more robust way. London Midland and Virgin tell passengers what the causes are of delays on their information posters so there is no hiding place for NR!
Following the latest ‘wires down’ incident last week at St. Neots, NR issued an apology after the rail.co.uk story was written, accepting responsibility for the incident. This will further affect East Coast Trains’ performance figures while putting more pressure on NR to sort the problems out once and for all. Midland Main Line services have also suffered badly recently from overhead wire faults.
NR said sorry…
Network Rail said: "Our initial investigations into the recent overhead power supply incidents at Radlett and St Neots indicate that both incidents were caused by component failures.
"We are sorry for this and for the disruption many passengers will have experienced as a result. In both instances we have identified exactly which components failed and we are carrying out further work to establish the reasons so that we can minimise the chance of repeat failures in the future."
NR claimed that in the last two years, overhead line faults causing delays has fallen by 14%, with serious incidents down by 23%.
"At both Radlett and St Neots, our programme of maintenance checks had been carried out as planned and all inspections were up to date." They said.
But the ORR has indicated that asset management has been of long-term concern to them. They have asked for reassurance that resources are in place to manage assets competently and efficiently now that they have completed all the high priority assessments of the load-carrying capacity of its bridges.
The derailment at Barrow-upon-Soar is another significant incident to add to NR’s growing list of embankment and cutting failures and raises asset management issues. ORR is concerned that no precursor indicators were picked up by the maintenance inspection regime.
NR said that they had been monitoring the track near Hatfield colliery at Stainforth in Yorkshire since February 9, 2013 after a train driver reported a 'rough ride'. Train services in the area have been carefully managed to protect safety. A huge landslide then took place closing the line.
NR anticipates that there will be disruption to services between Doncaster and Goole and Doncaster and Scunthorpe for some time. Their engineers are working with the colliery to plan the safe repair of the track bed and railway once the spoil heap has been stabilised.
The issue of how railway neighbours manage, or mismanage their responsibilities was amply demonstrated in the BBC Railway series just last week when flooding was caused by a council not maintaining its drains also in Yorkshire near Leeds.
Network Rail chief executive David Higgins said: "We recognise that this has been a difficult period for passengers, with disruption on many lines due to extreme weather. Our staff worked tirelessly, often in difficult circumstances, to get the railway back up and running and we would like to thank passengers and train operators for bearing with us during this time."
The damage that extreme weather can do to a Victorian rail network which was neither designed nor built for such challenges is clear. Whole lines were closed by flooding and tracks came close to being washed away by rivers which burst their banks. On the worst affected parts of the network, torrential rain caused up to sixty landslides in a single day. “This has been a wakeup call for the whole industry, which we ignore at our peril.”
Keyline’s National Rail Division came to the rescue when the recent bad weather disrupted train services in Devon. Severe flooding in the area had caused a wash out to part of the track at Broom near Axminster and the company played a pivotal role in getting the railway line repaired by supplying essential civil engineering and specialist products and materials within hours of the incident occurring.
Keyline responded to an enquiry from Network Rail contractor Amalgamated Construction for a range of products needed to make the necessary track repairs including pipe, concrete cloth and aggregates. Taking advantage of its nationwide network, the company was able to deliver the initial requirements from its Exeter depot in just two hours, whilst working with a local quarry to organise the delivery of Class 1A Aggregate.
Changes to the repair requirements meant that Keyline had to quickly adapt the order and organise for next-day delivery of additional products from a supplier in Swindon and the local quarry. Twelve vehicle loads delivered a total of 80 bulk bags of Class 1A Aggregate, 120 bulk bags of Gabion Stone and 72n Gabion Baskets within a 24-hour period to ensure the contractor had access to the required materials to make the repairs.
Stefan Jastak, Senior Buyer at Amalgamated Construction Ltd, commented: “The assistance of Keyline meant we were able to react effectively to the work requirements to minimise the disruption to the local rail service. It enabled us to demonstrate high levels of flexibility and organisation to better manage the repairs and meet the precise needs of Network Rail.”
Richard Wade, Rail Sector Manager at Keyline, said: “Our 24/7 emergency response service means we are best placed to supply civil engineering and specialist products for all unplanned work. Furthermore, our nationwide network of 88 depots enables us to provide complete solutions for all station and track requirements along key routes and lines.”