If you’re going to have seven fully loaded aggregate wagons fall off the track just after Christmas, you really need a bit of good fortune to help you out. And luck can come from some surprising quarters. Perhaps it could be an obscure piece of railway kit that belongs to someone else that just happens to live a couple of miles down the track. Or perhaps it could even be a helpful local Scout troop.

Saturation point

It was wet around Christmas time. Not overwhelmingly wet, just winter wet. Trouble was that this Christmas soaking followed on from weeks of even worse weather and so just about everything that could be saturated was saturated. Most of our aging railway embankments have got used to being given a good soaking, but every so often it all becomes just too much to bear.

This is what happened just to the north of Barrow on Soar on the Midland main line. Originally a two track railway it was widened to accommodate four tracks – and the cheapest way to do it was to place (dump) large quantities of spent ash on either side. Ash was available in huge quantities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and was used for all types of filling operations as well as for track ‘ballast’.SRDA  009 [online]

Cheap it may have been, but it can be a little fragile at times. Like many revellers after Christmas it too was a little fragile, but this time it was because of too much water.

Bank slip

When the railway system reopened for business after the Christmas break, the second train to travel south along the Up slow line was hauling a rake of twenty 100-tonne wagons containing mixed aggregate. The locomotive and the first ten wagons would have completed their journey successfully had they not been brought to an abrupt halt by the severance of the brake pipe. Behind the break lay the last seven vehicles, brought off the track when a 20 metre section of the ash bank slipped down by about half a metre.

The Slow lines were blocked. The phones started to ring. Receiving their post-Christmas phone calls were Richard Walker and Rob Lunn of Network Rail’s infrastructure projects team in Derby. They weren’t the only ones of course. Framework contractor Amalgamated Construction (Amco) was on its way with staff switched straight from emergency works in Wales and the west of England. DB Schenker was also on site, working out how to recover its wagons.

No access road

Many of our articles that cover track reinstatement mention temporary access roads and the involvement of neighbouring land owners. This time though there was to be no access road and little contact with the neighbours. It just wasn’t that sort of site. It was certainly difficult to get at, but Richard and Rob came to the conclusion early on that everything could be achieved using the existing rail access and by using trains. This certainly bucks the recent trend. Mind you it was pretty obvious right from the start that rail access was practical whereas road access certainly wasn’t. The team from DB Schenker came to the same conclusion for their wagon recovery. They too opted to work on their tricky operation from track level.

But before any earth could be moved or any track could be reinstated, it was necessary to find out what was going on in the embankment. The bank was given a good shave to get the dense vegetation out of the way and access steps were installed. The extent of the slip appeared to be defined, but piezometers needed to be sunk to check on the embankment structure and on its composition. Specialists from Pell Frishman interpreted the findings, defined the limits of the problem and drafted out a design for repairs to the bank.

Long-reach excavator

Barrow 032 [online]All the equipment made its way to site either as road rail machines or – in the case of Stobart Rail’s 360° long-reach tracked excavator – by loco-hauled low loader wagon.

Working its way carefully down the bank side, the excavator established a working area at the bank foot. Luckily it wasn’t necessary to acquire land as there was enough within the boundary line. This was a little ‘indistinct’ to start with and needed to be confirmed by the geomapping team in Manchester.

With the toe drainage repaired, the work of taking away the ash began. Fortunately it was possible for the arising spoil to be taken further down the line and placed as bank strengthening. This did away with the need to haul muck away from site.

No big yellow machine

Fetching in fresh fill to reinstate the bank appeared to be less straightforward. Dumpers, road-railers – it would have taken ages to complete. As luck would have it though, the Infrastructure Projects team has a wide spread of railway engineering knowledge – not just pure civils, but also track civils.

This side of the operation spends most of its life fetching and taking away prodigious quantities of stone and has a shrewd idea of what plant is the most appropriate. After all, the high output track relaying machine does not rely on dumpers otherwise it would be a laughably low output track relaying machine. The relayers feed stone to the site from a long rake of wagons and this was just the sort of kit that was needed. But there wasn’t a big yellow machine on the horizon.


This again is where luck helps out. Just down the track is the Lafarge Gypsum plant and tucked away in their sidings – which were also handy as the road rail access bridge head – was a stone discharge train (SDT). It may not have been yellow, but it was big and could handle respectable and continuous quantities of stone. Above all, it was available.

Thus an arrangement was made between Network Rail and Lafarge for the use of this bit of kit. Cooperation between all the parties involved ensured that the sometimes fraught process of running ballast trains at short notice went ahead without a hitch. Over two nights, with a steady discharge from two train loads of stone, the 1600 tonnes of new fill was carefully placed and compacted in layers.

Once up to level, track staff were programmed to reinstate the Up slow – initially with a temporary speed restriction of 20mph. By mid January and after final tamping and lining, the temporary speed restriction was lifted, the Up slow has returned to normal and the station at Barrow on Soar was able to reopen.

And the helpful local Scout troop? What was all that about? Well, they just happened to own a hut that became the messing facilities for the construction gangs and, being helpful, they have been suitably rewarded. So everyone had a bit of luck in the end.