by Phil Marsh

Severe Winter weather conditions forecast for the rest of January

Published: 16th January 2015

How will our rail network be managed to keep trains running?

It is a fact that when bad weather hits the UK, especially in the winter, road users switch to rail despite the popular press headlines that rail services are disrupted. Why do they switch? Because often the train is a better option than roads and is infinitely safer as roads average five fatalities a day.

So trains are often busier than usual as people try and avoid road travel disruption but what does the railway do to keep a service operating safely? The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) chief executive Richard Price has taken to social media to explain what his office is doing to minimise disruption caused by bad weather to passengers.

Suffering from wind?

High winds bring all manner of things onto the railway with garden trampolines a regular intruder as they are easily carried by the wind onto the tracks. Trees and branches also fall from lineside gardens onto the railway line causing delays. And of course leaves on the line lay a slippery paste on the railhead between October and December every year.

On an average day, the English and Welsh rail network safely carries around 18,000 trains a day, with most of them arriving within 10 minutes of the advertised time. This is no mean achievement and the logistics of this are simply not understood or acknowledged by much of the media or politicians.

For example, in mid-January a national free morning paper carried on its front page that a morning rush hour train from Brighton had not arrived on time in London for a year and most days was one minute late.

Nobody for example had kept a log to see if the same journey by road would have been achieved with similar punctuality over a year though. But it is a fact that Network Rail’s (NR) performance is below what they have been funded for via the ORR who has highlighted too many people are facing too many delays, with around 50,000 more late trains in England and Wales than we'd expected in 2014. As a result, NR has said that it will plan better using robust data to improving performance.

The ORR rightly says that ‘Effective communication with passengers is also vital’ and we know that this falls down regularly in times of unplanned disruption – unlike major engineering wo5ks for example.

Behind the scenes in bad weather

When the forecast is bad with ice, snow, high winds or fog forecast, road users switch to rail as it generally copes better so trains are often busier.

High winds bring speed restrictions if the tracks are overhead line electrified as the wires are more prone to failure in these conditions so trains may run at 80 mph instead of 125mph, but still above the road speed limit.

This means the timetables cannot be maintained so NR and the train operators have contingency plans ready to minimise disruption, even by halving the number of trains just to keep them running for example.

Frozen points?

Ice and snow can bring the railways to a halt. Snow can compact between point blades at junctions which means the track circuit safety systems do not activate and interlocked signals remain at danger. NR has been fitting point heaters and also insulated others to avoid failure in low temperatures.

Once snow is a few inches above the railhead, it has to be cleared and snowploughs are sent out to patrol known troublespots, pushed by locomotives. A few locomotives are fitted with mini-snowploughs and are used to run along sections of track prone to heavy snow.

Similarly, ice can form on overhead wires which causes arcing and power loss so electric locomotives are sent out on overnight ice patrols so trains can commence as normal.

Water water everywhere

But, a year ago we all saw that flooding can and does cause serious disruption with the line at Dawlish washed away and many other lines badly affected by water. This was especially so on the southern network where the rails are electrified with a third rail placed on insulators. If these lines flood, there is a real risk of the DC voltage leaking into the water with the attendant dangers.

When high winds occur after prolonged heavy rainfall, trees are more likely to be blown over and landslips are also more common. This is because railway embankments are now maybe 150 years old and prone to disturbance.

So what is the official advice?

Keep up to date with Met Office weather forecasts and see if disruption is likely and if so, travel on a different day if your journey is not urgent. If you have to travel, make sure you are prepared and maybe take some water and snack foods with you. And a book!

So what is the official advice?

Keep up to date with Met Office weather forecasts and see if disruption is likely and if so, travel on a different day if your journey is not urgent. If you have to travel, make sure you are prepared and maybe take some water and snack foods with you. And a book!

So what is the official advice?

Keep up to date with Met Office weather forecasts and see if disruption is likely and if so, travel on a different day if your journey is not urgent. If you have to travel, make sure you are prepared and maybe take some water and snack foods with you. And a book!

And finally….

The railways do not cancel trains on purpose just to annoy passengers! They have strict performance targets to meet prescribed by the Department for Transport and the ORR. Floods happen, high winds blow, snow falls and ice forms. The railway’s prime objective is safe travel, even if you are delayed, staff will do their best to keep things moving – honest!

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