There are over 70,000 structures across Britain’s railways that Network Rail is responsible for maintaining.
Chris Davies is HM principal inspector of railways and Steven Dennis is head of asset management at the Office of Rail and Road
These include bridges, retaining walls, culverts and tunnels; with many dating back to Victorian times. Failure of a structure can lead to catastrophic risk to trains or in the surrounding area. The challenge is clear, and that’s exactly why a clear, robust and systematic examination routine is vital to monitoring the condition of structures. Without these examinations, the condition of assets is not fully known and faults may be undetected or not competently assessed, posing a potential safety risk.
Office of Rail and Road engineers and safety inspectors work together to assess Network Rail’s progress across the work they carry out on the network, including assessing and maintaining structures. It is through this joint working that we raised concerns about a significant backlog of structures examinations and a lack of a clear plan on how to catch up, as outlined in our recent Annual Assessment of Network Rail 2020-21.
Network Rail’s undertaking of examinations and evaluating structures in accordance with published standards is a requirement under the network licence. There are three elements that make up the process – site examination, report submission and evaluation. ORR first raised concerns about Network Rail’s backlog in this area in 2011, going as far to issue formal Improvement Notices due to incomplete structures examinations. Since then progress has been made, but our ongoing assurance activities have identified that the improvement has plateaued and a number of incomplete structures examinations and evaluations remain. By way of mitigation, Network Rail undertakes risk assessments where there is non-compliance on site, to identify if any interim mitigation action is required to manage safety risks. But this is not a replacement for carrying out the examinations.
The potential safety impact from incomplete examinations is clear, particularly when looking at the wider picture of how climate change is impacting rail assets, and our recent assessments also underlined the importance of Network Rail improving its knowledge of its drainage assets. The incomplete examinations or evaluations introduce uncertainty into the railway system and can impact on the ability to plan maintenance and renewal activities. This may lead to poor performance due to temporary speed restrictions and route availability may be negatively affected. These incidents and potential knock-on effects illustrate the importance of carrying out high quality evaluations of structures examinations so that risks can be identified, and appropriate remedial work carried out.
As you would expect we are talking regularly with Network Rail, not only centrally but in the different regions to understand their plans. During our recent review into the overall examination process, Network Rail did not provide sufficient assurance that it had suitable plans in place or was making adequate progress towards eliminating the non-compliance.
That is why we have again escalated this as an issue and are taking action to ensure this is rectified. We will closely monitor Network Rail’s progress and delivery to ensure that its regions have suitable improvement plans in place or are making adequate progress towards eliminating the overall non-compliance.
Jointly with Network Rail we are also commissioning an independent review to assess the non-compliance across each of the five regions in more detail, including reviewing the actions being taken, the quality of any plans that have been developed and the likelihood of each region being able to provide a sustainable and compliant outcome. It is expected that we will publish a report on the findings towards the end of this year.
Our requirement is for Network Rail to deliver a clear resourced programme designed to address the overall examination and evaluation process backlog, and for sustainable examination programmes to be put in place across the regions for the longer term. We will continue to press for this and hold Network Rail to account for delivering against these requirements.
*Chris Davies is HM principal inspector of railways and Steven Dennis is head of asset management at the Office of Rail and Road
Department of Civil Engineering https://www.ibu.edu.ba/department-of-civil-engineering/