Network Rail ‘must do better’ on structural examinations

Image from ORR website

The Office for Road and Rail (ORR) has written to Network Rail over concerns about a backlog in examining the condition of structures like bridges, tunnels and culverts.

John Larkinson, ORR chief executive, has written to Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, outlining concerns over the “limited progress” the operator has made on eliminating non-compliance with the examination of structures, despite the ORR first escalating concerns in 2021.

The letter warns that if Network Rail does not complete the overall examination process at the required intervals, faults could be undetected - or detected but not properly assessed - and in some cases, this could lead to a safety incident.

Larkinson writes that this could also result in speed restrictions being put in place to mitigate the safety risk, making it more difficult to run trains on time. 

Failure to manage the examination process could also impact Network Rail’s ability to efficiently plan its maintenance and renewal activities.

"There are over 70,000 structures on the rail network, so we understand the scale of the job of inspecting these assets,” Larkinson says. 

“Equally, we know this requires clear, robust and systematic examination plans but previous attempts to get on top of the backlog of work have failed. 

“Network Rail has accepted the need to do better and it must now deliver against the agreed workplan to clear the backlog."

A report by WSP Consultants in October 2022, commissioned by Network Rail, recommended the revision of the company standard for examinations. 

Network Rail subsequently modified the standard and compliance with this new standard (CIV/006) is intended for September 2023. 

The aim of the standard CIV/006 is to support a more risk based examination regime through changes to tolerance of examinations; visual examination intervals; and examinations delivery by line of route. 

Since this new standard was published, the ORR has reviewed Network Rail’s plans for compliance and has two specific concerns.

Firstly, the ORR says Network Rail does not have robust plans in place across all its regions to achieve a reasonable level of compliance with the new standard and reduce the backlog of examinations.

Secondly, the ORR states regions are making insufficient progress to implement the use of available technology (for example drones or sonar scour monitoring technology) to reduce the backlog of inspections.

The ORR states that despite some pockets of good practice, overall there has been limited progress by Network Rail and some regions have seen the backlog increase. 

ORR has not been satisfied with the limited progress and, following constructive dialogue with Network Rail, the company has agreed to provide ORR with robust plans with clear milestones to achieve compliance by 30 June 2023. 

ORR will assess these, with final plans produced by the company at the end of August 2023. 

ORR will then closely monitor Network Rail’s delivery of its plans and will investigate overall progress at the end of the current Control Period 6, which ends in April 2024.

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