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Debate Rail speed restrictions

Speed restrictions and rerailing programmes have caused chaos for the travelling public on the railways since the Hatfield rail crash.

This week we ask: Did Railtrack over react by imposing so many speed restrictions and instigating such a massive re-railing programme?


Railtrack's reaction to gauge corner cracking (GCC) has been excessive, both as regards the need to apply speed restrictions and to remove defective rails so quickly. The rail at Hatfield was in exceptionally poor condition and in my view was of an inappropriate grade for the conditions. I have not seen anything like it in 35 years experience and nothing like it has been found since. Railtrack's most recent statistics on rail figures support the view that rail breaks are under control again after the peak of the previous two years.

The criteria for rail safety spending is £3M per fatality avoided (compared to £100,000 on roads), yet statistically a repeat of Hatfield is so unlikely that repairs could have been confidently spread over a year or more with minimal speed restrictions. From this perspective, the £400M compensation to be paid to the train operating companies makes Railtrack's safety reaction look totally disproportionate.

So Railtrack overreacted on both technical and financial grounds: where did it go wrong?

The hopeless division of the railway has separated the action and reaction of normal business decision making, which should fall within an individual organisation, into the conflicting objectives of many companies.

Nevertheless, if Railtrack had taken a tough and realistic stance at the outset, untainted by emotion, it would have avoided the conflict with Her Majesty's Rail Inspectorate and the Health & Safety Executive who refused to support the easing of speed restrictions once imposed. It took politicians to demand and obtain a more sensible approach and to recognise that the ALARP principle was being misused to protect backsides.

But have we seen the whole story yet? The network-wide hunt for GCC after Hatfield has certainly brought into focus the message already coming from some track engineers, that there was a new and growing problem.

The infrastructure owner could be accused of being slow to recognise the GCC epidemic, but it is by no means certain that GCC has been caused by Railtrack or its maintenance contractors. The true cause of changed conditions at the critical rail/wheel interface might well be connected to changes in wheel maintenance: then who would be compensating who?


Caution should not be confused with over reaction. Engineering decisions are made within a legal and societal environment. It is that environment which defines what risk is tolerable and what is not.

In the hours after Hatfield it became apparent that gauge corner cracking - hitherto seen largely as a rail life serviceability issue - had led to catastrophic failure. It was imperative, both professionally and legally, to apply speed restrictions until a control system appropriate to the emerging risk was fully in place. Since then both an intense research programme and extensive physical and ultrasonic testing of the network have been pursued.

The result of that work has been that most speed restrictions have been lifted or eased using structured engineering judgement. The massive engineering programme currently under way is dealing with all the sites where speed restrictions remain necessary.

The size of the work programme to achieve normality - 450 miles of re-railing and 600 switches and crossings to be replaced - demonstrate that there was a real issue to deal with.

Everything that has happened since - the imposition of speed restrictions, the massive engineering programme and refocusing of the engineering directorate at Railtrack - have all been driven by both sensible engineering decisions and a recognition that such a failure should not be allowed to happen again.

We are now seeing a gradual improvement of the network with Easter as our target for a return to normality. It has been a trying time for everyone involved. It is only right that as engineers we have our decisions and plans scrutinised. However, it is worth repeating that caution should not be confused with over reaction.

The facts

Blanket speed restrictions were put in place across the network at some 650 sites in the aftermath of the Hatfield crash in October 2000.

Sites were prioritised for speed restrictions that had a known cant deficiency over 110mm, had a line speed over 100mph, or had an axle load over 25t.

Since the Hatfield crash more than 150 miles of track have been replaced across the network. Over Christmas work was carried out at over 60 locations, involving some 8,000 man days.

Railtrack has said that from this week, 23 of the 28 train operating companies are returning to their pre-Hatfield time tables.

Railtrack has been instructed by the Rail Regulator to produce specific rail recovery plans for individual passenger and freight train operators by today.

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