Action needed on railway drainage, structures and safety says industry regulator - International Burch University
Main cable assembly completed on world’s longest suspension bridge
July 13, 2021
‘Purely ethnic profiling’: New wave of Tigrayans detained
July 13, 2021

Action needed on railway drainage, structures and safety says industry regulator

The Office of Rail & Road (ORR) has said that the rail sector dealt with the challenges of Covid well but must deliver more action on “Cinderella assets” of drainage and earthworks, as well as track worker safety, in its annual reports on the sector.

The reports assess rail safety in Great Britain and Network Rail’s performance and both call for greater focus on drainage asset knowledge, structures examinations and track workforce safety.

“Our reports highlight the need for Network Rail to focus on the interlinked fundamentals of safety, managing assets, delivering efficiently and keeping trains running on time,” said ORR chief executive John Larkinson. “While its delivery has been good overall, it must continue to improve track worker safety, and improve its resilience to climate change.

“The size of Network Rail’s challenge to deliver efficiencies steps up this year and requires relentless focus, particularly as the spending review begins.

“There are risks to train service performance as passenger numbers rise and we will monitor Network Rail’s response, including what options it sets out to address falls in performance.”

The regulator described the fatal train derailment at Carmont last August, which occurred after heavy rain and claimed the lives of three people, as a “stark reminder” of the need for continued focus on safety management. The ORR said that Network Rail must ensure it effectively manages its infrastructure, to mitigate the impact of climate change and extreme weather on our railways, with particular focus on earthworks and drainage systems.

ORR chief inspector of Railways Ian Prosser said that earthworks and drainage have been “Cinderella assets” for too long. “We are working to ensure the rail industry takes action,” he said.

The report said that worker safety must remain a top priority as highlighted by the deaths of three rail employees, including two track workers in Surbiton and Roade. The ORR commended the action taken by Network Rail to reduce the proportion of its trackside work that relies on human lookouts from 15.9% to 7% between 2019-20 and 2020-21, as well as plans to remove the practice by the end of this year.

However, the regulator called in the infrastructure operator to demonstrate better use of technology to reduce safety risks, such as automatic warning equipment, in particular for line blockages.

The regulator said that Network Rail continued to deliver on its efficiency improvements despite the disruption to work on site in the early stages of the pandemic. The organisation reported £710M of efficiency improvements for the year, which is ahead of the targeted improvement of £570M. Network Rail has said that it remains confident of delivering the planned £3.5bn efficiency improvements during control period 6 which covers the five years from 2019 to 2024. ORR said that the only area of concern regarding this target going forward was work in Scotland.

Despite largely delivering on its engineering work and enhancements project plans throughout the pandemic, the ORR raised concerns that Network Rail was falling behind on inspection of its structures. The safety report states that the year saw “significant failures of a number of structures” and points to the failures at the viaducts in Nine Elms and Carron Water as key incidents.

“These incidents illustrate the importance of carrying out high quality evaluations of structures examinations so that risks can be identified, and appropriate mitigations implemented,” states the report.

“With more frequent severe weather events impacting the management of an ageing infrastructure, particularly earthworks and drainage systems, it is imperative that weather resilience plans continue to be enhanced. It will remain important to be able to identify the conditions of assets quickly if they are more likely to fail. Achieving this requires strengthened arrangements and improved monitoring and preventative action by Network Rail.”

The regulator said that while safety risks related to delayed structural inspections were being mitigated, there was “limited evidence” that adequate progress was being made, or plans were being put in place, to reduce the backlog of inspections.

The ORR’s concern over inspection delays also extends to the work to locate, inspect and record all of its drainage assets. Network Rail has responded by committing to dates for each region to complete these surveys and the ORR has said that it will be holding the regions to account for this.

The ORR also sounded further warnings around Network Rail’s finances and has suggested that its reserves are “lower than may be necessary for the remainder of the control period, particularly in Scotland”. The ORR acknowledged that the mitigations put in place during the pandemic had increased costs but called for clearer plans from Network Rail over how any future financial risks will be managed.

Three main challenges ahead

ORR chief inspector of Railways Ian Prosser said in the safety report that the rail industry faced three major challenges in the year ahead.

“The first includes rebuilding passenger numbers through an enhanced experience,” he said. “To do this we need to maintain the safety and punctuality performance we have seen this past year and minimise disruption to help build confidence back in the railways. We will need to have excellent management of the risk at the platform train interface and station passenger flows to help facilitate social distancing if it remains for the foreseeable future. Train Operators will also need to keep up the excellent work they have done cleaning trains and stations. Improvements for disabled passengers will come, such as the increased use of tactile paving across the network, with the Department for Transport (DfT) looking to accelerate plans to do so and ensure the maintenance of and consistency of yellow lines on platforms.

“The second challenge is track worker and depot worker safety. I am pleased we have seen an almost 40% reduction in near misses over the last 12 months between workers and trains, but as I’ve already mentioned we’ve seen an increase in workforce fatalities this year which is why we need to improve the safety culture in frontline teams and tackle head on some of the entrenched resistance to change that has bedevilled previous attempts to tackle these issues. We will continue to support the delivery of Network Rail’s task force to close out track worker safety improvement notices, in which it has made progress on first line assurance and with Southern Region the furthest advanced. We will be seeking improvements to depot safety and monitoring the effectiveness of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) depot safety sub-group of Passenger Operators Safety Group. The industry needs to deliver on improved health management, including mental health across the sector.

“The third challenge I see is the need to manage an ageing infrastructure especially in severe weather events. I have already detailed earlier in this foreword why this is an issue, but it is clear we now need to manage drainage as a critical asset and make the best use of new technology in predicting weather events. Alongside strong operational readiness and control and strategic management of earthworks and vegetation this will help minimise disruption and lower safety risks so must be a priority going forward. Post Covid and financial issues on the industry will make this more of a challenge.”


Department of Civil Engineering