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Network Rail weather mitigations ‘not appropriate’ before Stonehaven tragedy

Network Rail did not have “appropriate” weather forecasting and earthwork failure mitigation measures in place before the Stonehaven tragedy sparked reforms, according to Dame Julia Slingo.

Following the derailment which killed three people, Network Rail commissioned a weather advisory taskforce – led by Slingo – and an earthworks management taskforce – led by Lord Robert Mair – which each considered how the railway can better cope with extreme weather.

Speaking at NCE’s Future of Floods conference, Slingo said that traditional tools used by Network Rail to monitor ground conditions were simply not good enough.

She said: “If we are going to get to grips with this challenge we are going to have to have a much better sense about what is going on hydrologically at the level of the railway track.

“Network Rail has traditionally used things such as soil moisture indices which are modelling products or they have used an old system called Morex which gives you something about soil moisture deficit.

“Neither of them are appropriate for understanding the risk here.”

She added: “In my report we actually very much highlighted a new product called Relative Wetness […] which takes the hydrology of soil types [..] and provides operational, timely estimates of the wetness of the soil across the country at the kilometre scale […] and gives a really fantastic map of where the biggest earthworks risks are or risks of potential landslides.”

A key role identified in Slingo’s report was for greater uptake of monitoring and surveillance technology to mitigate the risks.

This could include new sensors and drones, helicopters and satellite imaging, along with powerful algorithms and data analytics.

Slingo added: “Weather is a very dynamic thing so we felt that 21st Century digital technologies provided a great opportunity to have a more dynamic and visual presentation of the hazards and potential impacts on the rail network than currently Network Rail receives.

“That for me is the most important recommendation of the report – this much more digitally based approach, layering information, enabling more dynamic decision making, reducing blanket restrictions on the rail network where they’re not needed, and driving greater efficiency and better transmission of key information about conditions around the rail network and the state of assets.”

Trials of such new technology have been rolled out across the network, and new dynamic, route-based weather forecasts, using the latest science, have been trialled in cooperation with the Met Office.

This is one of the first steps in communicating the findings to the industry and applying them on a day-to-day basis.

When the reports were published, Network Rail safety and engineering director Martin Frobisher told NCE that “The depth of understanding in these reports has really helped us.”

He added: “Prior to this we had some relatively simple systems for prioritising work and understanding our assets but these studies have provided us with greater appreciation of the science. So we can embark on a plan that will address some of the fundamentals in a way that we didn’t previously.”

The reports can be read here.


Department of Civil Engineering