We must maintain critical infrastructure

The failure of the Nuneham Viaduct between Oxford and Didcot is currently causing some significant disruption for freight services. The bridge, built a century ago, has been declared unsafe by Network Rail, meaning that passenger trains are suspended and the forty or so daily freight trains diverted, mostly via London and the West Coast Main Line.

There will no doubt be reviews of why the bridge fell into this state, but to be fair to Network Rail they were already on the case. Speed restrictions have been in place for several months and remedial work was already planned over Easter.  The operational response was also quick to kick in, and there seems to have been good collaboration in getting trains diverted too.

These things of course happen. Network Rail have noted the excessive rainfall earlier in the year, and the clearly emerging impact of climate change which is taking its toll on earthworks and bridge supports right across the network.  They are right to reflect too on the tight financial settlement for the next five years which will make renewals of older structures even more challenging if money cannot be allocated to that.

Yet there is a real concern that if critical infrastructure is not managed effectively there could be a decline in the capability of the network and the ability to meet freight customers’ reasonable needs.  This cannot be allowed to happen, and we need action now to ensure we are better prepared. Critical assets for freight need to be identified, and contingency plans developed. Are diversionary routes available and fit for purpose?  Is route knowledge in place?  How are the assets being managed now to seek maximum outcomes for the longest time?

We cannot allow climate change to become an excuse for complacency either. Speaking at our Annual Scottish Conference, Alex Hynes the CEO of Scotland’s Railway outlined the work they have been doing on managing flooding risks, including mapping of drainage assets, better lineside management right down to adjacent fields, and a more sophisticated understanding of the meteorology to inform decision making. This approach is focussed on keeping the network open for freight and passenger, and taking a proportionate response when adverse events happen.

As businesses become more reliant on the railway as part of their supply chains it is only right that they can rely on the network to meet their needs. Critical infrastructure must be managed to ensure we do not let them down.

By Maggie Simpson OBE
Director General, Rail Freight Group