26 AUG 2020


Network Rail has launched two independent taskforces to help it better manage its massive earthworks (cuttings and embankments) portfolio and its understanding and response to severe weather events.

It follows the tragic events near Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, on 12 August, where a train derailment led to driver Brett McCullough, conductor Donald Dinnie and passenger Christopher Stuchbury sadly losing their lives.

Dame Julia Slingo, former chief scientist at the Met Office, will lead a weather action taskforce with the objective of better equipping 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.

Meanwhile, Lord Robert Mair will spearhead an earthworks management taskforce 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.

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

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.”

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “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.”

Weather action task force:

Dame Julia Slingo FRS, meteorologist and former chief scientist at the UK Met Office, will lead a review of Network Rail’s capability to manage and understand the effects of heavy rainfall on the railway. It will look at:

  • 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, geotechnical engineer and member of the House of Lords select committee on science and technology, will look at Network Rail’s management of its earthworks – including high-risk assets such as cuttings and embankments. This 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 Network Rail’s 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’s investment in its earthworks and drainage portfolio has increase significantly in recent years with its spend in 2009 to 2014 of £550m, increasing to £952m from 2014 to 2019, and with a budget of £1.3bn from 2019 to 2024.


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