Taskforces will help Network Rail understand how extreme weather can affect earthworks

Two taskforces will look at the risks from heavy rainfall and extreme weather and the management of embankments, cuttings and other earthworks.

Following the disastrous accident at Carmont, near Stonehaven, on 12 August 2020, Network Rail has commissioned two taskforces to help its understanding and response to severe weather events and to improve its management of its earthworks portfolio.

The Carmont accident was caused by a train hitting a pile of material that had been washed out of the adjacent cutting face after heavy rain.

Although Network Rail’s current safety management system provides a framework for the management of cuttings, embankments, structures and drainage, which have helped the company to limit the effects of rainfall on its infrastructure, the events at Stonehaven on 12 August have shown that more understanding is needed to help mitigate the risks further.

Weather Action Taskforce

Dame Julia Slingo.

The weather action taskforce will be led by Dame Julia Slingo FRS, former chief scientist at the Met Office and a world-renowned expert in climatology. Her objective will be to help Network Rail to understand the risk of rainfall to its infrastructure, drawing on the latest scientific developments in monitoring, real-time observations and weather forecasting.

Specific items to be investigated include:

  • How the data and research collected by Network Rail could be used to understand likely levels of rainfall at a location level in the present and 10 years in the future, in order to estimate potential damage to infrastructure;
  • How data can be used to ensure future engineering decisions take local weather factors into account, and to better understand how changing land use or river management policies near the railway affect how quickly rain enters and leaves the system;
  • The effectiveness of Network Rail’s use of existing forecasting and weather monitoring technology to identify where rainfall could pose a risk to the railway, and how that might be improved – for example through state-of-the-art nowcasting;
  • The extent to which Network Rail has explored the potential of real-time weather monitoring technology;
  • How Network Rail might use the weather expertise available to provide input into longer-term planning and procurement decisions – for example earthworks engineering or providing guidance to track and rolling stock design specifications.

Earthworks management task force

Lord Robert Mair.

Management of the earthworks themselves will be the focus of the second taskforce, led by Lord Robert Mair CBE FREng FRS, a geotechnical engineer and member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. His task will be to see how Network Rail can improve the management of its massive earthworks portfolio, looking at past incidents, latest technologies and innovations and best practice from across the globe.

His work will cover:

  • The effectiveness of Network Rail’s existing approach to managing drainage and earthworks assets, and whether or not a more integrated, co-ordinated approach is required;
  • An independent view of the suitability of our controls framework – whether it is effective in controlling risks and whether it is too onerous for frontline engineers;
  • Whether Network Rail has sufficient resources and skills to manage earthworks and drainage, and whether certain teams or regions could be strengthened;
  • What Network Rail might learn from other organisations with responsibility for managing earthwork risks;
  • Whether Network Rail is fully aware of the latest technologies and whether or not they are deployed effectively.

Network Rail has already doubled its  level of invest in earthworks and drainage, up from £550 million between 2009 and 2014 to a budget of £1.3 billion for the period between 2019 and 2024.

Immediate action

As well as setting up these two taskforces, Network Rail introduced a range of additional safety measures in the aftermath of the Carmont accident, including:

  • Inspection of hundreds of sites nationwide with higher-risk trackside slopes, similar to Stonehaven, as an immediate precaution, carried out by both in-house engineers and specialist contractors, supplemented by helicopter surveys;
  • Mobilisation of extreme weather action teams that were, in the light of the current extreme weather conditions, instructed to incorporate immediate learning into their plans as soon as it becomes available;
  • Discussion with meteorologists to understand how to strengthen real time information for flash flooding caused by unpredictable extreme weather to inform train operations, in cooperation with industry partners;
  • Engineering review of the existing programme for the remote monitoring of high-risk sites, to test whether this can go faster or further.

Comment

Andrew Haines, Network Rail.

Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, said: “The Stonehaven tragedy resulted in three people losing their lives – this is a stark reminder that we must never take running a safe railway for granted.

“With more and more extreme weather and tens of thousands of earthwork assets across Great Britain, our challenge is massive. And while we are making record investment in these areas, we have asked world renowned experts, Dame Julia Slingo and Lord Mair, to help us address these issues as effectively as possible, and at pace.”

Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps added: “The incident at Stonehaven was an absolute tragedy and we must make sure we learn every possible lesson to ensure it is never repeated.

“I welcome these taskforces as a step towards understanding the issues involved and have also asked Network Rail for a wider assessment of the impact of poor weather on Britain’s network, with an interim report published in early September.”

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