I had optimistically hoped to write in this edition describing the process and timescale agreed between the Office of Rail & Road (ORR) and Network Rail following the exchange of correspondence between them, as reported in RailStaff issue 286 (July-August 2023).
The ORR’s concerns about structures examinations go back to 2021 and progress has not been good enough, its chief executive has said. It is concerned by the quality of the reports, the competence of those doing the examinations, and those who decide and take responsibility for necessary repairs and renewals. It is also concerned that Network Rail does not have robust plans in place across the regions to achieve a reasonable level of compliance with the standard and reduce the backlog of examinations.
The backlogs vary between regions, but all are non-compliant in respect of site examinations, submission of reports, and their evaluation.
Network Rail’s response
Network Rail’s regions have now, in response to the ORR open letter, all worked up comprehensive plans. I understand these have been submitted to the ORR. I have also been advised that “good progress is being made to reduce the backlogs.” I hope to hear more about their progress and how soon they expect to be able to demonstrate that structural inspections are up-to-date, and repairs and renewals are keeping pace with defect reports.
Who will be held responsible?
It is not clear who would be held responsible if an infrastructure failure resulted in a train accident involving damage to the environment, injury, and/or loss of life.
The training, qualifications, and competence of those carrying out the site examinations is the first consideration. Railway structures, many of which were overdesigned nearly 100 years ago, are different to others and need to be examined by technically qualified examiners who understand them.
The examination of stations, tunnels (including shafts), culverts, retaining walls, bridges of steel, stone, brickwork, and concrete (both prestressed and reinforced) need individuals with the necessary experience and knowledge.
The engineering knowledge required in examining rail structures includes an understanding of structures which often differs from that needed for roads and highways. Similar comments apply to the knowledge needed by the chartered and incorporated engineers who site check and evaluate the examiners reports.
Professional responsibility for safety
As a retired chartered railway civil engineer, I appreciate the professional responsibility and accountability this conveys to individuals. I still recall being called upon to give evidence in court following a train accident and derailment which closed the main line railway for a week.
In court we demonstrated that neither structures nor the track itself contributed to the derailment since both were within the limits specified and were fit for purpose.
If a train accident occurred tomorrow, with the cause being, for example, a structural failure of a bridge, culvert, wing, or retaining wall, or indeed the track, signalling, or overhead electrification equipment, who would be charged by the police? Would it be individual examiners, their employers, engineers who signed off reports, Network Rail, the ORR, or all of them?
My request for an update from the ORR during the last week in September produced the following statement from them:
“ORR has received final drafts of Network Rail’s recovery plans and are currently assessing these. This has been an iterative process with extensive engagement between Network Rail’s Technical Authority and each Regional Team. We shall be holding Network Rail to account against these plans.”