Rail 582: Bridge bashes could lead to big disaster

Probably the most irritating delays on the railways are those caused by a bridge bash. I was on a Kings Cross bound GNER service in the summer when the train came to a halt soon after leaving Newcastle station and the groans of the passengers were audible. The language from my fellow passengers describing the driver of the guilty vehicle was very fruity, and focussed on the driver’s absence of brains and his lineage.

It does, indeed, seem a no brainer. Why does some dunderhead driving a high vehicle and coming up to a low bridge, which will have had a sign alerting them to the danger, not realise that just possibly that warning may apply to them? Quite often, the smash is at full speed, suggesting that there was not even a moment’s thought or doubt.

If this happened once or twice a week, it might be acceptable, but, extraordinarily, there are seven or eight such incidents per day, some 2,000 annually of which maybe 20 are potentially very serious, suggesting that there are a lot of empty headed drivers out there. Even more amazingly, about one double decker bus per fortnight hits a bridge, though fortunately most are empty as, obviously, they are running off route. Of course, these are the incidents that are reported, and there may be plenty more where drivers just scarper without alerting the authorities.

The vast majority of these incidents requires action from Network Rail and therefore results in delays. Every year, there are around a quarter of a million delay minutes caused by bridge bashes, around 2.5 per cent of the annual total, making it the 7th or 8th. Network Rail is working hard to limit delays. It has strengthened many bridges and categorised them, so that when there is an impact on a stronger one, trains can proceed at caution – usually 5 mph – before the arrival of the inspector, which means that rail traffic is not brought to a standstill. In some cases, too, subsequent trains can go through at 20 mph, again reducing the impact.

So, why can’t Network Rail or the highway authority stick warning gantries in the run up to bridges, which the vehicle would hit and then have time to stop? Or even just fit hanging bells, as there are on the Blackwall Tunnel?

Because, of course, it ain’t that simple. The Department for Transport will only allow warning gantries that are actually attached to the bridge and has banned Network Rail from building separate gantries. This is because of fears that gantries that were free standing might be knocked down by the guilty vehicle and consequently cause damage to nearby cars. Bells, apparently, are not legal under the regulations either. There is, though, a failure of imagination here. This is the 21st century: Could they not devise one made out of cheap plastic which, when broken, would emit a loud noise, or splatter the vehicle with paint ensuring that the driver would come to a swift halt? A bit of collective thought, here, would go a long way to finding an easy and cheap solution.

In fact, the rules are incredibly strict requiring very deep foundations to be laid, ensuring the cost of protecting a bridge is at least £100,000. The foundations have to be very deep and the gantry has to be able to withstand the equivalent of a 50 tonne impact. Worse, since the gantry is part of the bridge’s structure, there is still the need for an inspection which results in delays.

Moreover, even the signs warning of low bridges are designed more with minimising traffic disruption than with preventing incidents in mind. They can be sited as much as half a mile from the bridge, to ensure they are at a spot where the vehicle can reverse and turn round, rather than next to the site, which means that the driver may well have forgotten about the warning by the time the bridge is reached.

Yet, while there are strict regulations about installing equipment to limit the risk, there are no rules at all on the height of vehicles. If you want to fit a 50 foot mast on top of your mini, there is nothing to stop you. Rather ironically, it is low loaders – with their high loads such as excavators – that are common offenders.

The bridge bash blackspot is Grantham, Mrs Thatcher’s home town which perhaps explains her antipathy to trains. It is impossible to reach the town centre without going under a low railway bridge and three out of four of the bridges are in the top ten. One of them, over Springfield Road, is the country’s worst with 30 strikes per year. An exasperated Network Rail spokesman said, ‘this is not a series of accidents, this is a systematic road management problem that has a very serious impact on the railway.’ If Grantham had a by-pass, the problem would go away

The damage to the railway and inconvenience to passengers would be more palatable if Network Rail were able to claim the cost to the railway from the driver’s insurance. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against such claims. While Network Rail can easily obtain recourse for the physical damage to the bridge and for management time, claims for consequential damage such as train delays are not within the scope of the present law. It would, though, be interesting for NR to test the law on this.

There is a wider concern here than mere inconvenience to passengers unlucky enough to be caught up in a bridge bash. The ‘interface’ with road traffic is railway’s greatest risk, but that is usually considered in terms of vehicles getting on the line, as has happened twice in major accidents in the past decade, at Great Heck and Ufton Nervet. However, a strike on a bridge by, say, a low loader which resulted in the derailment of a train travelling at 100 mph or even more with several hundred people aboard could cause an unprecedented catastrophe. Sure, the risk is small and would require a particularly unlucky sequence of events, but that is true of all major disasters. Yet, trying to reduce the possibility of such an event is not on anyone’s agenda.

There is a bridge strike prevention group on which Network Rail, the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency sits but its main focus seems to be on informing drivers of the danger and publishing leaflets. Crucially, there is no single focus in the management of highways to deal with it, something that worries senior personnel within the rail industry. As one insider put it, ‘there is a gap: local councils and highway authorities are not responsible, so who is? There is no one who is trying to close down the risk of a major disaster’ It is precisely because there has not been such an accident that the risk is not taken seriously enough. No one has been killed in the UK in such an incident, but there was a derailment in Scotland in the 1960s. If there had been a major disaster, there is no doubt there would be a national programme of ensuring that bridge bashes were prevented. If ever there were the need for some joined up thinking, it is on this issue. While bridge bashes so far have been merely an occasional irritant, if they were to turn into a disaster, then the ‘whose fault was it’ accusations would soon fly.

Five for 2008?

Ok, ok, maybe Mystic Wolmar plumped for the easy options last time which is why he did so well – but you have hand it to the crystal ball wizard that predicting the next transport secretary would be a woman was a piece of insight that should have you all rushing off to the bookies…

This year, therefore, Mystic is sticking his neck out rather more and no longer going for the safe options:

  1. The old Eurostar platforms at Waterloo will remain empty until 2009 at least despite promises to the contrary.
  2. Ministers will become increasingly concerned about the lack of governance of Network Rail and will launch a review or enquiry into its future
  3. The Competition Commission investigation into rolling stock companies will lead to egg on the face of ministers.
  4. Eurostar will announce plans to run services to a couple of new destination.
  5. As the economy begins to stutter, a franchisee will warn that they may not be able to continue operating without a change in their contract terms.

I hope you agree, dear readers, that if Mystic scores a perfect five this time, he will have earned it!

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