Weather Advisory Task Force report published by Network Rail

Dame Julia Slingo headed up the Weather Advisory Task Force, which has just published its report.

Network Rail has published the report of its Weather Advisory Task Force (WATF), which has been reviewing Network Rail’s capability to understand and manage adverse weather.

The study focussed particularly on earthwork failures, with the aim of equipping Network Rail with the knowledge base and competencies, so that it becomes better prepared and more resilient in the future.

Headed up by Professor Dame Julia Slingo FRS, assisted by Paul Davies FRMetS (Met Office) and Professor Hayley Fowler (Newcastle University), the review was one of two commissioned by Network Rail in the aftermath of the Stonehaven tragedy in Aberdeenshire in August 2020, when a train derailed, having struck a landslip following intense rainfall, and three people died.

Lord Robert Mair.

The other review was conducted by an Earthworks Management Task Force headed up by Lord Robert Mair CBE FREng FRS, a geotechnical engineer and member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. 

Its task was to see how Network Rail could improve the management of its massive earthworks portfolio, looking at past incidents, latest technologies and innovations and best practice from across the globe.

The report of that review has also now been released by Network Rail.

Weather Advisory Task Force

In her summary of the Weather Advisory Task Force’s findings, Dame Julia comments that the formation of the WATF was very timely. In recent years, there has been considerable progress in weather/climate science and its applications, including new analyses of past rainfall, improvements in observing systems, significant advances in early warning systems, local-scale nowcasting and forecasting, and the emergence of innovative digital technologies for gathering, combining and sharing information.

The WATF gathered evidence on Network Rail’s current procurement and usage of weather information and services across the organisation. The WATF also sought to accelerate progress by demonstrating the ‘art of the possible’ with the latest Met Office operational forecasting capabilities and their potential utilisation within operational controls.

Finally, the WATF considered how Network Rail should procure its weather services and keep abreast of the latest developments in the future, so that it benefits more immediately from advances in science and technology.

The WATF makes the following major recommendations:

Recommendation 1: Cogent arguments in favour of a new approach to Network Rail’s Weather Service provision have been presented throughout the WATF report.

Advances in forecasting across minutes, hours to weeks are not being exploited by Network Rail. These would open up some major opportunities to deliver better early warnings to aid logistic planning, as well as new real-time, dynamic, location-specific forecasts and warnings that will improve operational safety and performance.

A joint Met Office/Network Rail ‘sandpit’ trial has already demonstrated the substantial potential of these new forecasting tools to transform Network Rail’s weather services, as well as showing the benefits of working together, through partnership, sharing information and action plans.

Latest forecasting capabilities should be formally trialled, under a structured framework agreement with the Met Office with the goal of implementing a full operational service.

Recommendation 2: Under asset management, the search for appropriate, spatially varying thresholds for assessing the probability of earthwork failures, using statistical analysis, has proved to be very challenging for Network Rail.

Earthwork failures are rare, and each is unique in some way, so it is always going to be difficult to tease out the drivers/indicators using statistics. Instead, the WATF recommends an alternative approach in which a forensic analysis of selected events is conducted, using all available evidence, including new databases on weather regimes, rainfall and local hydrogeomorphology indicators, to provide a complete picture of the hydro-meteorological context surrounding the failure. This may help to identify discriminating factors which can be used subsequently in a risk-based system for earthwork management.

The WATF also recommends that Network Rail places less weight on soil moisture indices and considers alternative metrics linked directly to soil hydrology.

Testing ground conditions following a landslip.

Recommendation 3: The Rail Technology Strategy is providing stepping-stones towards a data-driven railway. The evidence gathered has cemented WATF’s view that Network Rail urgently needs to transform the delivery of its weather services, by considering the development of a new hazard and impact-based digital platform which integrates all the relevant information to provide accessible, flexible and seamless services, driven by dynamic user specifications.

Network Rail should actively explore opportunities to embrace digital technologies, especially the Data Cloud and APIs, that could revolutionise how it delivers its weather services, from operations to asset management.

Recommendation 4: The WATF has considered various ways in which Network Rail may procure its future weather services, including through more digital applications. The preferred option is a partnership-driven, integrated transport hub for the benefit of transport providers, passengers and freight users. This will provide 24/7 access to all operational services and expert advice, including flooding, and thus deliver an authoritative set of services across Network Rail and its Routes and Regions.

The Met Office already serves Highways England and NATS (National Air Traffic Services) and it would be logical to combine this expertise to deliver a fully integrated transport service.

Recommendation 5: Network Rail needs to build its professional competencies in meteorology, hydrology and climate change so that its staff can act as intelligent users of science and services across all its functions. The WATF proposes the creation of an ‘Academy’ which will act to transform the culture of decision making in Network Rail.

By bringing together a diverse body of academics, service providers, Network Rail staff and its stakeholders, the Academy will engender a service-oriented culture under a common mission to deliver the safest, most efficient and resilient rail service for the UK, today and into the future.

Finally, the task forces made two other points for Network Rail’s consideration. First, the WATF was not tasked with assessing how Network Rail is responding to the challenge of future climate change, although its recommendations will strengthen Network Rail’s capacity to do so. The UK’s 3rd Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA3) will be published this year, and it is recommended that Network Rail uses this opportunity to commission an in-depth study of its future climate risks.

Second, Network Rail is a science and technology-driven organisation, from engineering to data-driven operations. This review has highlighted the need for Network Rail to develop stronger mechanisms for ensuring that it stays abreast of the latest scientific and technological advances and, where appropriate, exploit them. Network Rail should consider whether the establishment of external Scientific Advisory Committee(s) would serve it well and help to keep it at the forefront of the international rail industry.

Reaction

Martin Frobisher, Network Rail’s safety and engineering director, said: “The UK’s railway is one of the safest in Europe, but something went tragically wrong at Stonehaven last summer and our thoughts remain with the families and friends of Brett McCullough, Donald Dinnie and Christopher Stuchbury.

“Heavy rain caused ground slips on many occasions across the entire network last year and, although tragic accidents are thankfully incredibly rare, and none other than Stonehaven caused injuries, it is clear that extreme weather presents a significant challenge to the way we safely and reliably manage railway infrastructure.

“We do a vast amount to tackle the effects of climate change already but there is more to do. We established two independent, expert taskforces led by world-class specialists to investigate the problems we face and, crucially, to guide us as we make substantial improvements.

“We will carefully consider every single recommendation and develop a science-backed improvement plan, to target available money and technology in the best possible way. This is a real breakthrough.”

Grant Shapps,
Secretary of State for Transport.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps commented: “The incident at Stonehaven in August was devastating, and my thoughts remain with the families of Brett McCullough, Donald Dinnie, and Christopher Stuchbury, who tragically lost their lives.

“We must do everything we can to keep our railways safe, and I immediately commissioned this report so that lessons would be learnt without delay. This document sets out how our investment can enhance the resilience of our rail network against climate change and incidents of extreme weather in the future.

“We will be considering these findings carefully as we progress these works at pace.”

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