Rain is feeble excuse for rail chaos

Yesterday we saw another addition to the long litany of railway excuses. “We are sorry for the fire caused by water” was the explanation for no fewer than three fires in signalling cabinets that resulted in wrecked getaway plans for thousands of rail passengers.

Well, we all know that it’s not a good idea to pour water on electrical equipment, but it has rained on the railway ever since the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, opened in 1830. So the anger felt by passengers that yesterday’s chaos was the result of “water ingress” into lineside signalling cabinets was understandable.

You would have thought that over the past 182 years, the railways would have developed ways of sealing off electrical equipment from the vagaries of the weather It’s been a bad holiday period for Network Rail. Yesterday’s hold-ups were principally on the London–Brighton line and the Great Western, but earlier in the week services on the East Coast line out of King’s Cross were badly delayed on two successive days because of overhead line problems.

Overall, after several years of improving performance, delays this year have been increasing, mostly because of the wrong sort of weather. To someone who has just spent two weeks on the Trans-Siberian, which runs like clockwork in temperatures that would freeze most of the points on the British system, that excuse seems lame.

The delays in Cheshire, Derbyshire and several other places were more understandable as they were caused by flooding on the tracks. But here again, information was lacking. The Office of Rail Regulation has only this month berated the industry for failing to provide consistent advice at times of disruption. Sometimes passengers can get more information through their smartphones than by asking members of staff. It’s time for the railways to join the 21st century.

  • Richard P

    T he flood relief measures at Cowley Bridgde Jct shows two Orange Tubes running ACROSS the track, no wonder trains are terminating at Taunton! CHAOS! It is because the Govenment and DafT do not prioritise needs, Sod Devon and Cornwall. Could we pressurise for measures to get flood relief at this infamous junction, and prioritise rebuilding Okehampton and Tavistock back to Plymouth, PDQ, for a working relief route west.

    It has been a reopening priority since the numbskulls closed it post Beeching .

    SEASONGS GREETINGS to ALL for 2012 and some serious rail investment in 2013.


  • Flooding in the Exe Valley and you almost guarantee those pictures of Cowley Bridge junction with water flowing through. I’ve built cyclepaths in the past, often squeezing through on the margins of rivers, as these have managed to keep clear corridors through geography otherwise carved apart by barriers of roads and rail lines. In doing this we used flood arches of the many road and rail bridges to get ‘across’ the barrier, and accepted the known fact that for some periods, perhaps for a few days per year, or in some cases every high tide, the path would be under water, often still useable with care but not built at extreme cost with the Canutian objective of keeping dry feet. In the North of Scotland the huge culverts that cope with meltwater provide valuable road crossings, and those days on which the water levels are high enough to make them unusable, and most likely days when demand for them as road crossings is at its lowest

    We referred to this also with the idea of Irish bridges, where the stream or river is spanned in ‘normal’ state but during floods the water can rise up and flow over bridge and road surfaces, but with these designed to mitigate the scouring effects of concentrated flows of water at a high rate. One of my last projects with Sustrans was a causeway built to the level of the 1895 flooding at the site, and rewarded with a 1996 flood just above that level, which destroyed the banking and path upstream, but left our handiwork robustly in place, and requiring only a sweeping off of debris and silt.

    Which rather neatly brings us back to Cowley Bridge. With such frequent inundation this junction and the relief route for water down the rail line, and under the road bridge, should be built as slab track with and armoured spillway to drain over. The pictures show that rail lines, with their even gradients and clear channel through the landscape actually make excellent flood relief provision, and if designed to run with water passing at a low velocity between and beside the rails, could perform a valuable function in this respect for some key locations. Roads likewise can be designed to work as rivers – a typical 7-9 metre carriageway running with 6″ of water remains passable to most vehicles and even pedestrian traffic in welly boots, if it is designed to deliver in this way, and you can in fact see examples from the earlier more pragmatic times for places that experience flooding, where the road floods and a walkway carries pedestrian traffic over the low point.

    There remains just one weak point, where the Victorian engineering standards for banking slopes may have been appropriate with labour intensive construction and maintenance, and lower speeds and weights of trains and road vehicles. The commercial imperative of buying as little land as possible, to build a railway or road, has left today’s railway engineers with a network that demands very close observation whenever the clay or other vulnerable soils get seriously wet, a detail not helped by the fact that failures of cut-off drainage on land outside the railway are often a major contributor to that saturation.

    Whilst I have a comfort of the old OS bench mark on the corner at just over 43 metres above Newlyn datum, it happens that part of our plot is a terraced clay berm forming the street’s pleasure garden, held back by a 15 foot wall, for which various utilities (biggest finger pointing to BT) have destroyed the drainage running along the toe. If it does go and we watch for signs of rotation in the 160 year-old structure, we end up with a sloping bank (unless there is a decision to rebuild the wall), and a removal of most of the parking space on the street above. Crazily the skewed thinking also sees the massive mature trees that have grown through lack of management of the ground, all with tree preservation status, when the original design was for shrubs and other vegetation that is less likely to stress the structure!

    So throughout our built world this excess of water is showing how many lessons of earlier days have been forgotten or ignored – cue perhaps debating the failure of so many 1960’s beam bridges whilst a 1535 arch still carries a major trunk road, and Wade’s 1707 arch stubbornly remains standing at Carrbridge with minimal attention.

  • Steve Ashford

    Perhaps Christian Wolmar is being a little unfair as rain this autumn has been exceptional. However, the problems do highlight a need to look at ways to make parts of the system more robust and to improve the response when lines are interrupted.

    As Richard P says the West Country main line is particularly prone to interruption, and flooding at Cowley Bridge north of Exeter has been a regular occurence for years. Time for someone to come with measures to reduce the risk of flooding here! Time also to look seriously at re-opening the LSWR route from Extere to Plymouth as an alternative to GWR route.
    Better use could be made of the Waterloo to Exeter route. 30 years ago when I travelled periodically to Taunton, I can recall several occasions of Inter-City trains being routed via Yeovil and Castle Cary due to engineering work or sometimes flooding. This does not seem to be happening at present. I know that the LSWR line is mostly single (time for some investment here?), but surely a few trains could go that way? I can remember one journey from Newcastle to Taunton, and having to leave the train at Bristol because it was being diverted via Yeavil (flooding of course). A Paddington – Weston train was extended to Taunton for those of us going to Taunton. I have the impression that Cross-Country would terminate their trains and chuck everybody off with a cheery shout of ‘You’re on your own now’.
    Elsewhere, can the robustness of the overhead lines on the East Coast be improved? Overhead line damage seems much more common on that route than on the West Coast. Could more be done to use alternative routes? Perhaps some selective electrification is needed, such as Peterborough to Ely to allow electric trains to run from Peterborough to Hitchin via Cambridge?

  • CGW

    Perhaps those who inhabit an Londoncentric world should leave the comforts South East and venture down to the West and see the efforts of trying to keep the lines open… Two weeks after reopening the line NR are trying to keep the water from knocking out the signalling relay room by getting help from Fire brigade. Perhaps questions should be asked of the “Deep Alliance” zone of NR and the GW Zone as to why more FGW trains aren’t using the Mule when in days gone by the Waterloo trains would have stopped at Yeovil and FGW services would be covering Exeter – Yeovil.

    Some shots of the floods can be found here


  • Twyfordbucks

    The barriers are to protect the signalling equipment which has only just been rebuilt following the floods of a few weeks ago. The track can be replaced fairly quickly, but not the signalling.

    The water in the cabinets was from water pouring down from embankments and then flooding up into the cabinets. Electronic equipment gets hot and requires ventilation. Unfortunately as water rises it can enter via such vents. You can stand one in the rain all year with no problem, but not floods. All the street lamps and traffic lights have been out in my nearest town centre, the floods there are nothing like that experienced further west. I suppose that is also a poor excuse?

    Interesting idea from the cycle path chap. We did use “slab track” in the 1970s in various locations after a trial section of different types was carried out. It does not last as long as ballast. Expensive to lay, it wore out very quickly and was prone to sudden catastrophic failure. Not a desirable quality on a heavily used railway line. Ballast has “give” in it and allows the track to move slightly with load. What may be worth exploring is ballast made more stable with high tensile nylon netting. Slab track is best used where very light trains, such as on the Docklands Light Railway are used at low speeds.

    Trains cannot run in floods where the wheel flanges contact the water. The water is forced at considerable velocity at the wheel pan and can enter the axle bearings, again with potentially catastrophic results.

  • Just a thought – but I’d heard/read that fewer men “worked the line” than they did at one time – by this I mean they no longer have people walking the lines to check for problems (blocked culverts or drainage ditches perhaps?) as such things are thought as too time consuming and not “cost effective”?

  • Robert Wakeham

    Having visited Cowley Bridge a couple of times in the week before Christmas, it looks as if the only practical way of securing this absolutely vital rail route against repeated disruption by flooding is to grab the bull by the horns and provide much greater culvert capacity under the railway embankment to prevent floodwater building up, overtopping the embankment, washing out ballast, and flowing down the track towards Exeter St Davids station far enough to inundate that unfortunately located signalling equipment building.
    When Brunel designed the Great Western line at this ‘pinch point’ in the Exe valley he had to divert the Exeter – Crediton road, and his new road bridge over the Exe provided enough clearance to withstand all subsequent floods – and apparently without acting as a dam in times of high river levels.
    I wonder if the subsequent construction at this point of the Southern Railway junction, with the diverging twin track embankment and bridge over the Exe, did something to restrict the free flow of flood water and increase the probability of flood build-up and overtopping of the railway embankment?

  • yokels

    when i lived in Australia the commuter network in Sydney regularly failed in hot weather over 35 degrees with terrible information provided to stranded commuters, so it happens elsewhere. Mind you I worked on the Clearways upgrade and their system is generally pretty decrepit.