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14.11.14

East Coast suffers most rail breaks – RAIB

The East Coast Main Line (ECML) suffers from more breaks in the track than any other main railway line in the UK, an investigation by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) has revealed.

The organisation carried out its inspection after three rail breaks occurred during the period 2012-13. Although none of these three rail breaks resulted in injuries or damage to the trains, the incidents, along with reports that the occurrence of rail breaks on the ECML was relatively high, triggered the investigation.

A rail break at Corby Glen, near Grantham, was triggered by wear of the pad intended to separate the rail from the underlying concrete sleeper. Breaks at Copmanthorpe, near York, and at Hambleton, about 15 miles (24 km) south of York, were due to movement at rail joints caused by inadequate support from the underlying ground.

RAIB added that rail break statistics from Network Rail show that, after allowing for differences in route length and the amount of traffic, the ECML has more rail breaks than comparable main lines – that is, the West Coast Main Line and Great Western Main Line.

After considering both the types of rail break occurring on the ECML and the measures being taken by Network Rail to manage these, the investigation concluded that the most significant factor in the relatively high number of rail breaks on the ECML between 2009 and 2013 was the relatively high proportion of older track.

RAIB added that Network Rail data revealed that there were 629 rail breaks on its entire infrastructure in the four year period from April 2009 to March 2013. Of these, 186 breaks occurred on the London and North Eastern (LNE) route, and particularly on the ECML, more than on any other route. The number of rail breaks on the LNE route exceeded those on all other routes in all of these years except in 2010-11 when London North Western had more.

In addition, the number of rail breaks on LNE increased from 38 in 2010-2011 to 47 in 2011-12 and to 54 in 2012-13. Although RAIB stated that, when considering this increase, it should be noted that the number of breaks on other routes also show significant fluctuations and that the amount of rail traffic was increasing throughout this period.

However, it was noted that the number of rail breaks on Network Rail infrastructure has reduced from more than 900 each year in the late 1990s to an average of about 160 each year in the period 2009 to 2013. The improvement has also taken place while the amount of rail traffic increased by about a third.

RAIB has made a number of recommendations to Network Rail. For instance, the company should seek research to improve detection of the very small precursor cracks which usually occur in rails a significant period before the rail breaks.

The second relates to the wider adoption of lessons learned from managing rail breaks on the ECML while the third seeks a routine process for identifying and replacing defective rail pads. The fourth recommendation seeks implementation of improved techniques for detecting precursor cracks if trials using equipment recently fitted to Network Rail’s test trains (ultrasonic testing units) prove successful.

In response, Network Rail has recognised the relatively high level of rail breaks on the ECML and is replacing older track components on this line. It has also altered the maintenance criteria on the ECML to increase the likelihood of replacing moving (dipped) joints before they cause rail breaks. “These measures appear to be reflected in a recent reduction in the occurrence of rail breaks,” added the RAIB.

(Image: c. Network Rail)

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