Whenever one talks about the cost of British railways, the same comments come up – “efficiency”, “savings”, “McNulty”, “uncompetitive”, “expensive”.

Network Rail is no stranger to these financial pressures. The company’s finances and budget is divided up into five-year control periods and it is given targets by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) as to both its activities and budget.

In CP3 (2004 / 2009), the first full control period after Network Rail took over management of the railway’s infrastructure from Railtrack in October 2002, the ORR believed that the Operating, Maintenance and Renewals budget could be reduced by 31%.

CP4, the current control period running from 2009 to 2014, required a further 21% reduction, and no doubt CP5 (2014-2019), still in the planning stage, will set even tighter targets.

However, these goals are reductions in expenditure, not in maintenance. The railway’s infrastructure still has to be maintained and improved – just for less cost.

Large investment

The country’s 20,000 miles of track represents a large part of the total infrastructure for which Network Rail is responsible, and therefore also takes up a large part of the maintenance budget. So if any large-scale savings are to be made, track maintenance and renewals must be one of the main target areas.

Any reduction in expenditure cannot come from just doing less work. Network Rail has to demonstrate that their budget is used to deliver a railway that is safe, cost-effective, sustainable (ie the money spent will add value/life) and which performs to the agreed levels and outputs. Specifically with respect to track, the ORR sets targets for:

  • Level of performance (PPM)
  • Reliability
  • Track Geometry Targets (by primary, secondary and freight/tertiary routes)
  • Number of rail breaks/significant rail defects.

The 21% budget reduction for CP4 represented a £1.1 billion cut in the track asset management budget – an enormous amount if the same or better performance is needed at the same time. So how is it being done?


The first decision was to look at each asset, in this case track, as one entity. Previously there had been a Maintenance team, and a separate Renewals team. The danger with this arrangement is that once a project has been designated either renewals or maintenance, that is what happened whether there were better solutions or not.

The existing organisation structure was reorganised in December 2009 resulting in a Director of Asset Management for each discipline (in this case Track), Heads of Asset Management and Route Asset Managers.

In the case of track, there are nine Route Asset Managers each responsible for a specific geographical area and within their teams are Senior Renewals and Enhancement Engineers, Senior Maintenance Support Engineers (responsible for rail, welding and track), Lineside Engineers (drainage, fencing, vegetation etc) and Data Analysts.

The Route Asset Managers are responsible for acting as sponsors for all track programmes in their areas, and ensuring that the track asset is managed appropriately and meets the needs of the business, both at present and in the future. So there is no longer any split between renewals and maintenance, it is all about managing the whole track asset.

James Dean, Director of Track Asset Management, explained how the new system worked, and how it could deliver the required savings.

Replace or refurbish?

In the past, on nearly all routes, there had been a philosophy of completely replacing time-expired track. Not only is this costly, it is also wasteful as some of the elements could still be in good condition.

The Rail Engineer has reported on condition monitoring of such items as rolling stock and signalling in the past. Scheduled routine maintenance has, through analysis of performance, wear and failures, been replaced by focussed maintenance of individual components only when they need it. This saves money while possibly even improving performance.

This method is now being applied to track. Improved asset information, often derived from train-borne inspection systems, allow for better, more informed decisions to be taken regarding maintenance periods and possible renewal.

One example that James quoted was an exercise being proposed at Waterloo station on point movements. This will allow teams to maintain the most highly used assets more often, and the others less.

This study is being replicated throughout the country. Lightly utilised assets don’t have to be maintained so often, reducing cost. There are, of course, complications. Sometimes it is difficult to renew one item of S&C without also working through adjacent points and crossings that form part of a linked system.

However, when the work is done, very often the various components are no longer linked, making maintenance simpler in the future.

In the past, track designers looked for neat engineering solutions to problems, rather than considering maintenance. Double-slip points certainly have a small footprint, but are expensive to look after. A simpler solution may take up more track space, but solves a lot of those difficulties.

Admittedly, this may affect signalling and OLE, which will add to the immediate cost, but long-term the savings are obvious. And a simplified track layout can also lead to a simplified OLE layout, saving cost for the electrification team as well.

Is it needed?

A survey carried out recently in the Netherlands revealed that 25% of their S&C could be removed without affecting functionality, and studies in the UK have indicated that this could be the case here as well. There is no point maintaining an asset that isn’t being used and, as James Dean commented, there is a certain satisfaction with being able to remove five crossovers and only put three back.

James also recalls one particular instance. They were looking to do some routine maintenance on a particular crossover, when the team discovered it had only been used twice in six months. Some more research revealed that both of those occasions were when Network Rail’s own tamper went over it! So there didn’t seem much point in keeping it.

Network Rail’s track asset team is now working with their colleagues in operations and with train operators to look at track layouts and see where unused or underutilised S&C can be deleted. This will not only reduce long-term maintenance costs but also improve reliability. Some 90% of track failures that result in train delays are caused by S&C. As James rather ruefully commented, “The most reliable piece of S&C is plain line!”

Relocating crossovers can have an operational benefit as well. Careful placement can allow trains crossing a main line to clear more quickly, for example. A lot of points and crossings are where they have always been, rather than where they need to be, so looking at every situation with fresh eyes can reveal some unexpected opportunities.

Clever maintenance

Of course, reducing the number of individual assets reduces maintenance costs, but the remaining track still has to be maintained. Modern high-output machinery helps – it is now possible to remove and replace ballast, or re-rail a section, without replacing the whole track.

James Dean commented that they no longer “Just rip it all out”- it is now very much a considered decision on whether lower-cost activity will give the desired result and extend that asset’s life sufficiently.

Maintaining points and turnouts is easier now as well. Ballast can be removed using giant vacuum cleaners such as the Railvac and then replaced.

There is also a development exercise underway looking at large undercutters that can remove ballast from underneath points. Three manufacturers are working with Network Rail, and the first new machines should be in service within 18 months.

Plain track hasn’t been neglected. In the last financial year there were 124 rail breaks – the lowest number ever recorded. James is pleased with that figure, although he wants still more improvement. And even when track, and S&C, is “ripped out” – these days it all goes off for recycling – making even more savings long term.

All these new initiatives have certainly reduced the cost of track treatments. Some additional costs have been incurred in sorting out junctions and other areas to make savings in the future, but overall the track asset management team has saved £1 billion in CP4. And they are on target to save another 16% in CP5.

All this by actually doing more work!