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Network Rail and Environment Agency clash over flood scheme

Track operator and Agency came up with conflicting flood defence projects.

Councils in South West England have accused the Environment Agency and Network Rail of working in conflict on a vital flood resilience scheme.
Council leaders told MPs on Tuesday that separate schemes by the two agencies had been worked up for Cowley Bridge junction and the Exeter region that would render the railway unusable.

Plymouth City Council leader Tudor Evans told a House of Commons Transport Committee meeting on winter resilience and rail flooding that the conflict was a “classic” example of government agencies not working together.

“The scheme from Network Rail is to take away ballast and replace it with concrete and raise the signals up, so that the railway is brought [back into use] quicker after a flood.

“Then literally next door to that scheme is the Environment Agency scheme. The Environment Agency scheme next door is designed to save Exeter from flooding, because that’s their modus operandi and that means raising a barrier to flood the railway line.

“Now that is literally next door. They are not joined up. It’s your classic government project - two agencies not working together.”

The council’s chief executive Tracey Lee said: “I’ve written to the chief executive of the Environment Agency [Paul Leinster] who has said he doesn’t feel the schemes are in conflict. But, I’m sorry, we fail to see how those schemes are not in conflict.”

“Those schemes cannot go together,” she added.

Severe floods hit the railway at Cowley Bridge after storms in late 2012 and again in November last year.

Since the 2012 floods Network Rail has been working on a scheme to improve the railway’s ability to recover from floods in the future.

Plans include elevating signals above flood lines and improving drainage. Earlier this month, prime minister David Cameron named the Cowley scheme as one of those set to benefit from £31M rail resilience funding following the latest storms (NCE 20 February).

Lee said discussions between the two organisations about the schemes were still underway but added that more must be done to resolve the conflict.

“The most important thing is that Network Rail and the Environment Agency sit in a room together, and that someone just knocks some heads together to make sure that these schemes are working together.”

On 19 December last year Network Rail route asset management director Mike Gallop outlined its response to the flooding problem.

“After the floods last year we took immediate steps to review our infrastructure and put in place new measures to help boost the resilience of the railway, he said.

“We are also taking a long-term approach to prepare us for the changing weather and climate over the next 70 to 80 years. As part of this process, we are developing a high-level strategy that includes a £31M intervention plan targeting high risk flood sites such as Cowley Junction.

“This plan, subject to approval from the government, combines a series of measures including lifting track, upgrading culverts, strengthening earthworks and a new monitoring system.”

This week Network Rail agreed that the Environment Agency had failed to consider the impact of its plans on the railway but said it was working better with the agency now. Both agencies’ flood plans had still to be finalised, it said.

“Following last year’s storms we had some extensive conversations with the Environment Agency over Cowley Bridge and some other areas in the South West, which have led to a much better relationship in terms of the way we work collaboratively together, looking at the mutually beneficial areas of flood prevention from a railway and a housing perspective,” Network Rail western route managing director Patrick Hallgate told the committee.

“And indeed we are shortly due to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on a national basis on how we can work better together.”

Both agencies’ plans have still to be finalised, Hallgate added. “The issue [for the Environment Agency] wasn’t about the flooding of the railway, it was about protection of Exeter so we’ve moved to a point where we’re working together on a joint scheme now.

“But it is fair to say this time last year we’d got to a situation where their plans for a scheme weren’t taking full account of the railway’s requirements. We’ve moved beyond that now.”

Network Rail’s newly appointed chief executive Mark Carne told the committee the Cowley scheme was symbolic of a wider problem.

“There is a broader issue here about can you use the railway infrastructure for flood defences and is that the right thing to do?

“This is what the MoU with the Environment Agency is set to address, so that we work closely with them so that we can understand the limits of using railway infrastructure for flood defences. Because, of course, most of these railway embankments and structures were never designed with flood defence in mind.”

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said recent meetings of the government’s Cobra emergency committee had also helped the agencies to work better together.

“I think there is a much better working relationship actually between the agencies as a result of what we’ve been going through over the past months since the Cobra meetings first started,” he told the committee.

The MoU is expected to be signed in the next few weeks.

Readers' comments (1)

  • This situation makes question what Civil Engineering expertise lies within the Environmental Agency wanting seemingly to use railway embankments as flood defences. Also has there been any study into what effect the non dredging of rivers has had on the severity of the flooding in some areas. I'm sure we can all recall rivers where it was once impossible to wade across in normal weather conditions and now can be crossed with ease.

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