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Benchmarking indicates rail efficiency potential

Providing basic training in geotechnics for rail operatives could help improve delivery of Network Rail’s earthworks asset management programme, according to specialists from French rail operator SNCF.

The suggestion was one of several that were raised during a recent exchange visit between geotechnical asset managers from SNCF and their counterparts at Network Rail. During the visit seven engineers from SNCF had roundtable meetings and visited rail sites in the south east with Network Rail to discuss the differences and similarities between earthworks asset management in the UK and France.

“One difference between the French and the UK approach to dealing with earthworks emergencies is that SNCF train their local operatives in the basics of geotechnics so that they can recognise issues that need an immediate response and others that call for a watching brief,” said Network Rail head of civils asset management (geotechnics) Tony Wilcock. “In the UK, Network Rails geotechnical asset engineers are frequently called out when the problem is not significant.”

The other major difference between the two countries is the UK’s use of bank holidays for line closures to carry out major project automatically raises the costs of work due to paying overtime to operatives that is often three times normal rates. SNCF’s engineers said they normally are allowed to close lines for a week at a time and divert services.

“SNCF is a good benchmark for us as its asset management approach is at a similar level of maturity to Network Rail’s and our geology and age of infrastructure is also similar,” said Wilcock.

“The comparison of Network Rail’s work to other rail operators around the world came out of the McNulty report, which pointed to the issue that UK construction was more expensive than any other in Europe. This has led Network Rail to carry out exchange visits to other countries other than France, including Sweden and Australia.”

“The impetus to be a learning organisation is also being driven by Network Rails transformation programme, which has been running for 18 months with input from Arup and the Office of the Rail Regulator. The programme sets out to address 77 issues and work on 55 of these is already underway. These issues cover people, processes and systems and comparing costs is a key part of it.”

SNCF visited four rail sites in Kent to look at how Network Rail tackles problems such as rock falls, cutting maintenance and historic landslips.

Wilcock said that there is a real need to start carrying out geotechnical asset maintenance on a much larger scale in the UK to reduce the need to invest in the large scale schemes.

Discussions during the visit also highlighted the use of different techniques on either side of the channel. Anchored sheet steel piled walls are favoured by Network Rail but SNCF’s engineers said that this is not the primary solution and it has used schemes using soil nails and strapping in similar situations.

In order to accurately compare the French approach to the UK one, both Network Rail and SNCF are now to design and price one or two of the other’s projects that have already been completed. Network Rail geotechnical asset manager Derek Butcher believes that this will give more clarity in where the differences – and possible cost savings – lie.

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