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Change tack for cheaper track

Tough efficiency targets will require a “Formula 1” approach by track renewals contractors and Network Rail

It is no secret that last month’s funding settlement for Network Rail’s expenditure over the next five years fell short of the amount the rail industry would like to have seen.  

Amid a collective gasp from consultants and contractors, the Association of Consultancy Engineering’s chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin described the Office of Rail Regulation’s (ORR’s) call for 21% spending cuts as “deeply worrying”. He added: “It will be enormously challenging to deliver the investment and operational improvement required in the railway while reducing costs.”

But the ORR is convinced Network Rail can squeeze more efficiency out of its activities, and wants to see new ways of working introduced in design, construction, maintenance and operation in return for its settlement of £28.5bn.

One activity earmarked for efficiency improvements is track renewals. To meet the ORR’s requirements in this area, costs of track replacement work will have to fall by 31% during the next control period (CP4) on top of the 18% reduction achieved during the last control period. The target is described by Amey inter-urban managing director Steve Withers as “extremely challenging”.

Balfour Beatty Rail Services managing director Peter Anderson says that: “In order to deliver the levels of efficiency that Network Rail requires, the whole track renewals community will have to make a step change in its approach.” This step change will involve completely new ways of working across the board – changes that cannot be introduced overnight.

To give the industry time to develop new techniques and processes, Network Rail has told the four contractors recently awarded track renewal frameworks that their volume of work will be “backloaded”.  In reality this means workload will be down by over 25% in the first year of their five-year frameworks, followed by a ramping up of work to a peak in the final year.

One of the contractors to win a new track renewals framework is a joint venture (JV) between Amey and Colas. Withers says the JV understands Network Rail’s reasons for deferring work from the first year of the programme but is “obviously disappointed” to see cuts in workload. He adds: “We are also concerned about the industry’s ability to react to greater demand in later years if core skills are lost.”

Balfour Beatty picked up the framework for track renewals in the south east of England, and Anderson says that, while the deferral of volume “does cause issues for the track renewals community in the short term”, it “makes absolute sense from where they [Network Rail] are sitting”.  The positive message, he adds, is that a substantial amount of money will be spent on renewals and enhancements in the forthcoming CP4.

The imbalance in volume over the period is something the contractors will have to manage. At first glance it looks like the onus for efficiency savings will be on the contractors, but Network Rail is looking for improvements from everybody involved in the process – including its own organisation. Withers says this is essential if savings are to be made on the scale required: “Undoubtedly we can find some efficiencies in delivery on the ground, but greater gains may be found in areas of possession management, change control, design standards, etcetera.” Network Rail accepts this, and wants to streamline the way it manages track possessions.

At the moment it can take up to two hours to secure track in advance of renewal work. Network Rail wants to reduce this to just 40 minutes. The company has been working with the track renewals community for 18 months in a bid to re-engineer the whole “end-to-end” process of track renewals, from identifying the need for the renewal to delivery on site.  It is evidence of the spirit of collaboration Network Rail hopes to foster among its suppliers that, it hopes, will see contractors sharing best practice rather than keeping their efficiency-saving ideas to themselves.

A key target is to cut the time it takes for each renewal. At the moment, most renewals work is done during weekend closures of up to 54 hours. If the work overruns, it can cause havoc to Monday morning commuter trains leading to headlines about “late running engineering work”.

Ever-increasing passenger numbers on the network are making these overruns more and more unacceptable (and expensive) for Network Rail, while even smooth-running weekend closures are disruptive for people who want to

We are concerned about the industry’s ability to react to greater demand in later years if core skills are lost

Steve Withers, Amey

Network Rail’s drive to improve its own track possession process should mean more work can be done in a shorter time, but the overall drive is to make weekend possessions shorter and, where possible, to carry out track renewals during overnight possessions, with no disruption to passengers. For track renewals to be speeded up there will have to be considerably more automation, prefabrication and standardisation – something Network Rail and the contractors acknowledge. Renewals are either plain line – straight sections of track – or switch and crossings, both of which are ripe for modularisation.

Instead of individual elements being delivered to site and fixed insitu, they could be made off site in large sections and simply dropped into position during the possession.  “The whole ethos is around pre-assembly and prefabrication, so the weekend will be just about physical installation,” explains Anderson.

Until recently the average time for a switch and crossing replacement was 36 hours. That has already been brought down to 27 hours by more efficient planning and working, and Anderson says his company has done it in 18 hours. But Network Rail’s target for installing switches and crossings is just eight hours.  “The industry is keen to get on and do it,” says Anderson, “but it involves Network Rail investing in tilting wagons”.  

Prefabricated switch and crossing sections will be huge, and far too wide to fit along conventional railway lines. Tilting wagons will enable them to be loaded flat, then the bed of the wagon tilted up until the whole thing is narrow enough to fit down the gauge of the track. Anderson describes an eight hour time frame for switch and crossing replacement as “Formula 1 style track renewals”.

However, it is in plain line renewals that the public may see most benefit, as modularisation of straight sections is the best way of ensuring they can be placed in short, overnight possessions. “Modular plain line track renewal means we can aspire to deliver track renewals each night of the week,” says Anderson.

The plan is for track types to be standardised, so that set lengths of each type of renewal can be preassembled and delivered to site ahead of time. The actual possession time is then spent simply taking out the old track and putting the new section in.  “We would be doing the same operations at the same time every night, so it would turn into much more of a regular process,” explains Anderson.

“A 54 hour track renewal is a project, but doing the same thing every night is a process, so we would be turning it from a project-based to a process-driven operation.” Withers says modularisation – both of plain track and switch and crossing renewal – will “bring efficiency benefits through CP4 and beyond”, and will also provide indicators for optimising specifications and design in future.

Scaling back the volume of work to be done in the first year of the five-year frameworks is Network Rail’s way of giving its suppliers – and itself – time to bring these completely new methods of working to fruition. In the meantime, though, it still wants to see the current techniques used more efficiently – something that has resulted in the contractors increasing their expenditure on new equipment.  

Balfour Beatty has invested in plant innovation and development in the last two years, including a front shovel excavator and a machine specifically designed to clip and unclip rail in the southeast. It is also spending £20M on six new tamping machines for the UK market. “This is an incredibly exciting time to be in the rail industry,” says Anderson, whose company is currently bidding in collaboration with a Swiss and a German company for a seven-year, £750M UK-wide framework for laying track using Network Rail’s fully automated high output track renewals machines.  “We haven’t got the monopoly on good ideas,” he says. “There’s a lot of very good practice elsewhere in Europe. In the UK we are very good at many aspects of what we do in track renewals, but we can do better by adopting some aspects of European best practice.”

The Amey and Colas JV has also been investing in new equipment, including a hydraulic sleeper grab that lifts concrete railway sleepers from a wagon and places them on newly prepared ballast bed. The company also believes the UK industry can learn from elsewhere.  “We can use our experience in Europe to ensure that best practise – and therefore efficiencies – will be used to ensure continual improvement and added value is given to clients,” says Withers.

There is no doubt the track renewals community has a tough challenge meeting the targets set by the ORR for Network Rail to deliver, and it is going to require very close collaboration between the contracting community and Network Rail if the efficiency savings are to be delivered.  

However, Anderson believes it is possible. “Given that together we’ve re-engineered the end-to-end process, and got modular switch and crossings and modular plain line coming through – and contractors are doing their own things in house – I’m confident as a track renewals community we can deliver our part of the efficiency savings,” he says. “The big part of the challenge is each party accepting they’ve got to change. If the industryis accepting that, we’re half way there.”

The challenge is each party accepting they’ve got to change. If the industry accepts that we’re halfway there”

Peter Anderson, Balfour Beatty

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