Picking up the pace with high-speed track handovers

Source: RTM Feb/March 2019

In 2018 Steve Featherstone, programme director of track at Network Rail, set his team a challenge to secure 100 high-speed track handovers in a year. Following a concerted effort by team members on the project, the challenge was met in just nine months. RTM’s Jack Donnelly sat down with Steve to find out more about the project.

As has been the practice for track renewals handovers for the past two decades, the vast majority of repaired or recently-lain track has been reopened to train operators with a 50mph restriction, with the purpose of allowing the weight of passing trains to consolidate – to pack in – the ground underneath it, to ensure that track ballast underneath the track is safe for high-speed usage weeks later. The problem that comes with the speed restriction, however, is the impact on customer services: TOCs are forced to throttle back their top speeds, at times leading to delays, and the customer – ultimately the highest priority for TOCs – can be left feeling unsatisfied with the service. The scaled-back speeds have a greater environmental impact as the trains will have to use energy to slow down and then reaccelerate when heading through the speed-restricted area.

Though in recent years, programme director of track at Network Rail, Steve Featherstone, has approached track handovers with a different perspective. Using methods from the British Rail era of track maintenance and handover, Steve commented: “What we were trying to do is ask how can we as engineers replicate what trains are doing for us, but do it ourselves. And it’s all around consolidation and compaction of the ballast.”

With the ultimate aim of increasing the number of high-speed handbacks on networks across the country, the operations team introduced a Dynamic Track Stabiliser (DTS) to the area being maintained, effectively vibrating the track and the ballast underneath it. Each pass of a DTS replicates 100 trains passing through at 125mph, speeding up the stability of the consolidation. The team measured the level of consolidation in the ballast using a Falling Weight Deflectometer – a transferrable technology taken from the highways industry to check the condition and quality of the consolidation beneath.

“A step change in approach was about sending a signal to say that you can’t do this in a non-routine way,” Steve said, “it has to become business as usual, and we have to make it routine. As leaders often do, you give it a big hairy audacious go, and I said ‘let’s do a hundred,’ which seemed as an out-there number that was way beyond anything we’d ever done before, so I said ‘here is your challenge, plain line and S&C, to do a hundred high-speed handbacks in the 2018-19 year’.”

The track team at Network Rail not only completed Steve’s challenge, they blew it out of the water. On 28 December 2018, the line at Milton Keynes Central was returned to use by train operators at 125mph, marking the 100th high-speed handback of the year, three months ahead of schedule.

With this surge in high-speed handovers, key stakeholders are benefitting: Network Rail has to deliver fewer compensation pay-outs to services impacted by the speed restrictions – the first 125mph handback of a crossing at Sandy on the East Coast Main Line saved Network Rail £250,000 in that week alone – TOCs can deliver a timely, efficient, and effective service for passengers, and customers can arrive to their destination on time.

But how scalable is the whole process, to make it “business as usual,” as Steve puts it? “I don’t just want to apply it across the nation, I want to apply it across the world,” he claims.

“Some of what we’re doing is now world-leading and we’ve got people from all over the world saying ‘we’ve never done this before, this is something we’d like to do.’ I think very much so it will become the way we do business in Britain, but it’s nice to be in a position I think British Rail used to be many years ago, where railway companies around the world are sitting up and taking notice and saying ‘actually we’d like some of that, can we come and see what you’re doing.’”

Taking lessons from the bygone era of British Rail and matching it with cross-industry practice from sectors such as the highways industry has proved fruitful for the track handback team at Network Rail. With CP6 on the horizon, look for more pan-industry best practice to change and shape the sector for years to come.


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