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Rail files hold wealth of data

The editor welcomes letters at 151 Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4GB; UK fax: +44(0)171 505 6790 e-mail: paulw@


'History in the making' (Ground Engineering, September 1999) refers to the difficulty in obtaining maintenance information on railway projects, in particular on earthworks.

Such maintenance would have been reported locally at inspector and divisional level and would have been noted briefly in budget proposals to the chief civil engineer's office annually as a permanent way item.Retaining walls and structural failures would have been reported in a separate but parallel manner as a works budget item. I doubt that much of this data still exists.

When the soil mechanics sections of the regions were being developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the understanding of stability of clay slopes was still based on total stress concepts and remedial measures were based on this.

Where a site investigation was carried out, maintenance details obtained from the ganger would be put on file. The initial permeation grouting trials in 1947 on the Great Western Railway main line at Fenny Compton were between the 95.5 and 9.75 mile posts and my first work as a junior on the Western Region was to examine the site and take U38 samples.

The grouting was unsuccessful and the WR civil engineering laboratory developed the British Rail hydrofracture grouting system, starting on a London Clay site and then back to Fenny Compton in 1952 to achieve success in what became a standard BR system.

All these and subsequent sites were recorded to the nearest foot (about 0.3m) with date, quantities and labour costs both on file and in a grouting record book.

This gave the statistical possibility of designing grout patterns and estimating quantities prior to work. After 140 embankment sites had been stabilised I was able, in 1959, to publish a labour and materials cost of £5 per foot (about £16 per metre) which compared with Professor Ralph Peck's figure of $9 per foot (£16.90 per metre) run of similar embankment with pressure grouting.

The working papers, still on file when I retired in 1989, had details of which rail moved and even rail joints where present, plus details of grout intake after completion.

More than 600 sites were treated via the WR and later the BRB Soil Mechanics Section plus sites designed via the SR office at Croydon and the Direct Labour Organisation at Manchester.

With the amalgamation of the soil mechanics section of the London based regions in 1966 (ER, LMR, SR and WR) this included all the soil files and my staff recorded their location and type in a card index, later transferred to a computer disk where available.

These files still exist, covering foundations, earthworks, tunnels, retaining walls, underground fires and so on. Their use has been acknowledged by researchers from Imperial College, London and elsewhere and I have canvassed BR, and later Railtrack, officers to ensure they are kept safe.

Our research on our own data enabled a trackbed diagnostic procedure to be developed by 1954 and to show that, for example, the better performance of track on one particular embankment during wet weather was due to local ballast pocket conditions and not related to dessiccation or vegetation (there were no trees).

For foundation work, the old files were part of useful and economic desk studies and some details of the proposed or even replaced structures are still there.

DJ Ayres

Soil mechanics engineer (retired), British Railways Board

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