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Try something new: Network Rail looking for fresh ideas to stay on track

Network Rail is looking for innovative ways to improve the way tracks are replaced, and has organised a showcase event to see what the supply chain has to offer. Margo Cole reports.

As Network Rail prepares to award new five-year contracts for its ongoing track renewals programme it is expecting bidders to come up with some innovative ways to make the process more efficient and

The organisation admits that, during the last five years, it has squeezed the supply chain to get the cheapest possible rates for its programme of replacing worn out plain line track and the more complex switches and crossings, but this is not necessarily delivering value for money over the long term. As a result, margins have been cut, and little has been invested in new plant.

As a result, the average age of the plant being used by contractors delivering the current track renewals programme is getting older every year, and this ageing fleet is more prone to breakdowns, meaning contractors responsible for the work may not finish each scheduled section of renewal within the time they have been given - for example during a weekend possession.

Network Rail wants to turn this round be adopting more of a “total systems” approach to the renewals programme, rather than focusing purely on bringing down the cost of individual components. So during the next five year financial control period, CP5, the focus will be on productivity - making sure the work that is supposed to be done gets done within the allocated time.

The organisation believes there are plenty of technologies and products already in the market to help achieve this aim, and wants to put rail engineers, designers and contractors in contact with the companies that can supply them.

Unless people go out and see something different they’ll always carry on doing what they know

Steve Featherstone, Network Rail

“The supply chain is more like a spider’s web than a chain. Often the people with the problems don’t seem to find the people with the solutions,” says Network Rail programme director of track infrastructure projects Steve Featherstone.

To overcome this issue, Network Rail has organised an exhibition at the end of this month, in which over 130 suppliers will be demonstrating their products in a live rail environment. During the event, Babcock Rail will carry out a full eight-hour live 400m track renewal possession so that visitors can see what’s involved, Balfour Beatty will be showing the capabilities of its large cranes, and Amey/Colas will demonstrate how it uses vacuum excavation for track beds.

The exhibition site will be separated into different zones such as on-track plant and machines, welfare, surveying and lighting, as well as the test zone, where visitors will be able to try out small plant, tools and equipment.

Featherstone is optimistic that if the rail industry gets to see what is on offer, many of the challenges of the current control period can be overcome. “Britain invented the railway, and for nearly 200 years somebody somewhere has solved nearly every problem,” he says. “People are constrained by what they know, and unless they go out and see something different they’ll always carry on doing what they know.”

n The National Track Plant Exhibition is at Long Marston near Stratford-upon-Avon on 24 and 25 July. It is free to attend but, because it includes live demonstrations, all visitors must wear full PPE, including high visibility trousers and jackets or vests. For more information go to

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