Stonehaven report: Govt struggles to find new cash for safety investment

Network Rail has said extra safety spending to address the recommendations of a major report into the Stonehaven train derailment, which killed three people, could have to wait for the next Control Period from 2024 onwards.

The Department for Transport (DfT) and Network Rail published a report following last year’s train derailment at Carmont, near Stonehaven in Scotland, which killed the train's driver, a conductor and a passenger.

Network Rail said interim findings suggest the train collided with stone washed out from the land above the tracks, and that heavy rainfall that morning played a significant role.

The operator has been criticised by regulator the Office of Rail and Road for its approach to climate change resilience.

Network Rail has also published the reports of two taskforces – one into earthworks management and one into weather forecasting.

It said both reports ‘recommend looking at culture and organisational change, upskilling the workforce to better access, interpret and use weather data and technology, to carry out inspections and examinations of earthworks and drainage, and to improve knowledge and competencies consistently across the organisation’.

Other recommendations include:

  • carry out detailed analysis of previous slope failures and washouts, together with accompanying weather patterns and ground conditions.
  • accelerate the deployment of state-of-the-art weather forecasting capabilities through digital platforms.
  • proactively review and maintain earthworks drainage and consider having dedicated teams.
  • use helicopters and drones more widely for inspections, particularly after intense rainfall.

On the back of the report, drivers’ union ASLEF has called for more cash to improve the safety of rail infrastructure. However, Network Rail suggested any new money for safety investments could have to wait for another three years. 

The DfT said that during CP6 (2019-24), Network Rail will make a record investment of £1.3bn in strengthening the railway’s resilience to extreme weather. However, no new funding was promised.

Network Rail said ‘funding for long-term recommendations from the taskforces that are taken forward will be built into planning and investment for CP7 and beyond’.

Its main report said its investment plans target areas that have the highest risk of failure and consequence, but acknowledged that ‘high rainfall will continue to present challenges as it triggers a high proportion of rapid cutting slope failures with little or no indication of visible distress prior to failure’.

According to the report, 70% of the failures so far in CP6 were not at locations allocated for works in the next 10 years.

The earthworks management report, led by Professor Lord Robert Mair, identified shortfalls in Network Rail’s earthwork examination and risk evaluation system, ‘in particular reliance on algorithms and statistics as predictors of earthworks failure without verification by some site-specific engineering calculations’.

In a tweet, ASLEF said the Government should give Network Rail enough cash to carry out the work that is needed to maintain rail infrastructure ‘so that passengers, and crew, can be confident of the safety of our railway’.

Martin Frobisher, Network Rail’s safety and engineering director, acknowledged that it needed ‘to target available money and technology in the best possible way’ and said it would ‘consider every single recommendation and develop a science-backed improvement plan’ to do so.

He said: ‘We do a vast amount to tackle the effects of climate change already but there is more to do. We established two independent, expert taskforces led by world-class specialists to investigate the problems we face and, crucially, to guide us as we make substantial improvements.’

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