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Rail: Innovation extends the end of the line

With just over a year remaining of Network Rail’s current budgetary period, the eyes of the industry are starting to focus on what will happen in the next control period, CP5, due to start in 2014.

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Spending targets: The 2011 McNulty Report into the UK’s rail industry outlined 30% efficiency savings by 2019

Last time round the rail regulator set Network Rail’s budget for the five year period from 2009 to 2014 at £28.5bn - a reduction of over 21% on what the rail operator asked for - claiming there was considerable scope for efficiency savings within the industry.

Since then, a controversial review of the rail industry carried out by Sir Roy McNulty in 2011 has claimed that yet more efficiencies can be found, setting a target of 30% efficiency savings by 2019.

It is against this backdrop, as well as the current tough economic climate, that Network Rail is currently preparing its submission to the regulator for CP5. It is due to present its case in early 2013, with the regulator’s response expected later in the year.

Rail industry experts are anticipating that the regulator will take a similarly tough approach as it did five years ago. “Money is tight, so there is likely to be less money to go around than the ageing rail infrastructure and Network Rail’s spending plans would require,” says SKM rail director Simon Collins.

In the meantime, however, there is plenty to cheer consultants and contractors in the UK rail sector. Ongoing major projects like new signalling and electrification across the network, the Great Western upgrade, Thameslink and Crossrail are all likely to keep a considerable proportion of them busy over the next 12 months; continued government backing should ensure that High Speed 2 will be taken forward to the next stage of development; and the money is also in the bank for London Underground (LU) to continue its major upgrade and signalling programmes, as well as the introduction of new trains and the innovative “cooling the tube” project.

“If you have high quality condition data, and know your assets well, then you can look at risk-based examination frequencies”

Simon Collins, SKM

New build and enhancement projects such as these are unaffected by the negotiations that are expected to ensue later in the year between Network Rail and theregulator, although they are being examined closely to identify where efficiency savings can be made. What is likely to provoke heated debate is the amount of money available for simply keeping the rail network up to standard.

“There is a very large network out there that needs to be maintained,” says Collins.

Collins describes the task of managing the rail network as a balancing act that can be visualised in classical asset management terms as an equilateral triangle. The point at the top represents level of service - what you want the network to do - while the two points at the base represent risk/reliability and maintenance expenditure. “They are all inherently linked,” he says. “If you change one, then you also change one - or possibly both - of the other two.

“When you are running a railway, risk and reliability are absolutely critical; you can never knowingly accept any increased level of risk, beyond as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP). But both the level of service and the level of risk are inherently linked to cost. “When the government wants to cut spending, it affects one of those points on the triangle. You can’t accept any more risk, so the only way you can maintain the level of service is through better management of your assets,” he adds.

Collecting data about the condition and capability of their assets in a format that makes that information useful when it comes to managing those assets, prioritising expenditure and managing risk. This investment in new asset management systems will help Network Rail make the most of the cash the regulator awards for maintenance this time around.

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“You can never knowingly accept any increased level of risk, beyond as low as reasonably practicable”

Simon Collins, SKM

“We live in straightened times,” he says. “All clients that are responsible for the management of critical assets need to think about how they’re managing them.”

The rail sector used to rely on working practices that saw standardised inspection and maintenance regimes for each type of asset - be it a bridge, set of points or ballast. There would be a set of rules governing how often the asset was inspected and, sometimes, how frequently it was maintained or replaced.

But this type of regime not only risks some assets slipping through the net, but is likely to result inmoney being spent on unnecessary inspections or maintenance.

The asset management techniques Collins is talking about mean that an asset owner knows the current condition of each individual asset, enabling maintenance funds to be allocated where they are most needed, and inspections to be targeted more efficiently.

“By investing in that sort of system - and keeping it up to date - you can direct the money to the right places and focus capital maintenance on the right bit of renewal.

“If you have high quality condition data, and know all your assets really well, and the rates at which they are likely to deteriorate, then you can look at risk-based examination frequencies,” he adds. “Better asset knowledge enables an entirely different approach.”

Collins says Network Rail has been building up its knowledge of the condition of all its assets, and is now in the process of “joining up” all that information with systems that will enable it to adopt this risk-based approach to asset management in the future.

“This is not just about data systems,” says Collins. “It’s also about the physical processes by which you monitor your assets, the systems that enable you to translate that into a work bank, and about how you deliver it. If something goes wrong in any of these areas that will increase risk. It is a very cyclical process.”

Network Rail has recently demonstrated that it is keen to work more closely with its supply chain, and will no doubt be looking to its consultants and contractors to help implement its improved methodologies for managing the huge task of maintaining its asset base.

Sweating the assets

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New life: Fibre reinforced polymer is replacing wood on many rail bridges

SKM is currently helping Network Rail to develop a decision support tool for its civils assets to forecast the level of expenditure needed to meet the required levels of service while recognising the variation in the types of assets, as well as the individual condition, capability, risk and the intensity of use of each asset.

The work is being done by a combination of asset management modellers, statisticians, and data experts, with input from the engineering team that has a detailed understanding of how civils assets behave and, in particular, of Network Rail’s infrastructure.

A benefit of doing detailed asset management is that assets can be sweated more, or enhanced in a way that gives them additional years of service life without the need for full replacement.

One method that SKM has pioneered in the UK is the use of fibre reinforced polymer (FRP) composites to strengthen existing bridges. The firm has so far been involved in the rehabilitation of around 17 Network Rail bridges over the past eight years using FRP composites, giving these structures a further 30 years of life and saving millions of pounds.

The first applications involved replacing traditional timber decking on metallic bridges, with the advantage that FRP is lightweight and impermeable, so it can act as a waterproofing layer that keeps the supporting metalwork dry. In addition, some of the ballast depth can be replaced with cellular FRP, reducing dead load.

This approach was used at Rhuba Glas viaduct in Stirling, where the timber deck of the two span, 18m long bridge was replaced with FRP.

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