It seems incredible – what a turnaround in the weather! Despite most of us enjoying a reasonable autumn, during December and January we experienced one storm after another rolling in from the Atlantic. Writes Stuart Marsh
It is wintertime after all, but the result of the gales and downpours coupled with exceptionally high tides made headline news. Storm damage to our coasts was severe from Cornwall to Scotland, and washouts and storm damage affected rail services in many areas.
One line to suffer badly was the Cumbrian Coast route between Carlisle and Barrow-in-Furness. December saw flooding of the line on several occasions around Aspatria and Maryport, but the biggie came in the New Year.
The night of 3 January was one of strong westerly gales, very low atmospheric pressure and exceptional tides, with the result that sea defences were overwhelmed. Between Workington and Maryport, the line runs very close to the sea shore, protected primarily by so-called rock armour – a 25 metre wide wave barrier formed from large limestone boulders. At two locations the rock armour was disrupted to such an extent that the railway was exposed to the full force of the wave action.
At the former Siddick Junction, just north of Workington, a 70 metre stretch of the secondary defence, a substantial 3.5 metre concrete sea wall, was completely destroyed. Not surprisingly, the track ballast and formation were then scoured out, leaving the Down line suspended in mid-air and the Up line partially undermined.
Approximately 1,400 metres to the north at Flimby, where there is no sea wall, the ballast and track bed were washed away over a distance of 200 metres. Here, too, the rails and sleepers of the Down line were left in mid-air and the Up line was blocked with debris.
Things weren’t much better further down the Cumbrian coast. At Parton, south of Workington, a large hole formed in the substantial stone block sea wall, lineside equipment was uprooted and 600 metres of ballast was washed away, exposing the sleeper ends. An embankment at Braystones near Sellafield was eroded at its base over a distance of 400 metres and four slips were discovered, whilst at Sellafield itself a section of the high concrete sea wall that supports the railway was dislodged.
Despite all the damage and disruption, the safety of trains was never compromised. A 40mph speed restriction had been placed on the route when the high tide was forecast and the line was completely closed at 14:00 when Northern Rail services were replaced by buses. The full force of the storm which, coinciding with the high tide, occurred later that evening. It was a wise move to close the line early, as even where the sea defences remained intact the huge waves deposited sand, stones and other detritus over the railway.
As Martin Frobisher, Network Rail area director North West put it, “We’ve not seen the sort of sea surge that we’ve had here in many, many years. The 9.5 metre tide, the on-shore wind and the low pressure system all coming together at the same time has smashed a huge concrete sea wall and washed away the track. It’s been a massive job to get it back.”
A repair project was put in place almost immediately, with Network Rail civils contractor Murphy rising to the challenge. At Siddick and Flimby a team of 50 workers was deployed, working round the clock on 12 hour shifts. The scheme in the short term has involved replacing the rock armour using five-tonne boulders hauled by road from Shap Quarry. From the delivery point near Workington the boulders were transported to the work sites by six-wheel articulated dump trucks along the beach, before being carefully placed in position using tracked excavators. Murphy also undertook work to restore the sea defences at Braystones and Sellafield by adding rock armour. In all, more than 4,000 tonnes of stone was required.
Martin Frobisher said, “Thousands of people use this line every day. It provides an essential local service and, for us, the priority was to get it open as fast as we could. For that there has been a lot of work in laying new sea defences, rebuilding the formation and putting the track back.” He wouldn’t be drawn on the cost of the repair works. “Our priority has been to restore the line as quickly as possible. We’ll be counting the cost later, but the work isn’t completed yet.”
As a longer term solution, the concrete sea wall at Siddick will be reconstructed. Martin added, “When railways follow the sea so closely for many miles, it is an ongoing battle to maintain the sea defences”. Network Rail’s own maintenance team re-laid the track with works trains bringing 1,200 tonnes of ballast to the two sites north of Workington. The line was reopened on Monday 13 January, just one week after the damage occurred.
Cumbria wasn’t the only area to suffer of course. Storm damage caused Arriva Trains Wales services to be suspended between Llanelli and Carmarthen on the West Wales route, but the problems there pale to insignificance compared with the devastation on the Cambrian Coast line. In some areas between Dovey Junction and Pwllheli the scale of the damage has rendered the railway almost unrecognisable. At the time of writing, damage to the railway and its sea defences was still being assessed.
Network Rail’s infrastructure maintenance delivery manager for the route is Lee Green, based in Shrewsbury. As he put it, “I have 29 years in the industry and yet I look at this and find it hard to know where to start.”
The worst hit stretch is at Llanaber, just north of Barmouth, where the track has been moved sideways by 2.5 metres and a large hole has formed in the sea wall, allowing wave action to excavate the earth behind it and leaving the track suspended. Lee Green continued: “Over a 1,600 metre stretch between Barmouth and Llanaber, we estimate that 3,000 tonnes of ballast has been lost and 5,000 tonnes of rocks from the sea shore have been hurled up onto the track. Beneath Parcel Lane level crossing at Barmouth there’s a hole big enough to park a car in!”
As in Cumbria, the problems on the Cambrian section began during the morning of 3 January. Network Rail engineers were on board the first train of the day to Pwllheli in order to assess potential damage to the sea defences. North of Barmouth it became clear that the service could not continue because of waves crashing over the railway, so the Class 158 unit was turned back and held at Barmouth station – where is was to remain for the next two weeks, before being removed by low loader!
Gangs had been mobilised to inspect known problem sites and it became clear that the 10:30 high tide was wreaking havoc. The next five high tides only added to the damage and, at Sandilands near Tywyn, the rock armour on the beach was significantly disrupted and the sea wall damaged. Even gaining access to this site has been problematic, with 1,000 tonnes of stones needing to be removed from the highway.
Further north, near Harlech, the sea wall was damaged and approximately 300 tonnes of ballast was lost. It was a similar story at Afon Wen, where the sea wall has required re-capping and 500 tonnes of ballast has had to be replaced.
In all there were six washout sites along the route between Aberdovey and Pwllheli, but some of the problems were only discovered after helicopter surveillance was able to commence on 11 January. North of Tywyn, the large sea wall at Tonfanau was found to be damaged and the cliffs at Friog, where the Great Western built the famous avalanche shelter, will require remedial works to stabilise them.
Lee Green said, “Our priority is to allow Arriva Trains Wales to reinstate their service as far as Barmouth, as the bus route between there and Machynlleth is tortuous. We have a dilemma at Sandihills, though, on whether to re-lay the track first, or wait until the sea defences are rebuilt. It will probably be a compromise involving some of each.”
Here, as at Llanaber, the scope of the works will involve a staged approach with input from Network Rail Maintenance teams, Maintenance Capex, Infrastructure Projects and Design. Because the line passes through areas of sensitivity, some of the works will require licensing by Natural Resources Wales. For instance, at Llanaber the beach has lost four metres in height, so the question is whether to replace the lost material, or construct a 50-metre sea wall. The rock armour boulders in this vicinity have become rounded off and no longer interlock, so they will need to be replaced.
Lee Green’s view was that train services to Barmouth would recommence on 3 February, but that works north of there would take another three months. It is thought that some of the sea defence projects could take more than 12 months to complete, with the total costs being in excess of £10 million.
The disruption caused by the bad weather wasn’t confined to coastal routes. Flooding problems and wind damage occurred over much of the network. Rail routes in the counties of Surrey and Sussex were hard hit, with landslips at Redhill and Coulsdon and flooding at West Croydon and Balcombe.
Most of that damage was repaired quickly, but a serious landslip at Ockley between Horsham and Dorking caused more of a problem. Network Rail’s route managing director for Sussex, Tim Robinson, said: “Hundreds of our staff worked in difficult conditions on the railway over Christmas to repair landslips, remove trees and also keep our planned engineering works running. The most difficult challenge now is the landslip at Ockley, where more than 40 metres of the embankment has collapsed.” This slip occurred in a location with very difficult access, which considerably hampered the repair work. Signalling cables were disrupted as well when the side of the embankment fell away. Full reopening of the route was expected to take at least a month.
Cost and strategy
The risk of flooding and weather damage has increased in recent years. Martin Frobisher said that the conditions on 3 January were exceptional, and he was right of course, but what does exceptional mean these days? Britain’s climate is certainly becoming wetter. Time and again the result of increased rainfall is flooding, damage and disruption to homes, businesses and infrastructure across the UK. The cost of repairs is enormous, as is the cost of prevention.
The government has now announced an increase in expenditure on flood defences to £2.3 billion over the next four year period between 2015 and 2021, but how much of this will directly benefit the rail network? The answer is not a lot, and the financial burden will continue to fall largely on Network Rail.
High profile schemes such as the sea defences at Dawlish and Teignmouth, costing £8.5 million, have been successful. Much has been done too over recent years in stabilising and grading embankments and cuttings and in improving drainage.
Much remains to be done however and it was on this subject that David Ward, Network Rail route director for London and the South East, spoke in front of the Transport Select Committee during January. He said that Network Rail would be seeking additional funding from the Office of Rail Regulation for spending on future severe weather damage that is not covered through insurance. When asked about the overall cost to rail infrastructure of the latest period of severe weather he said, “The damage could cost millions, if not tens of millions.”
Back in 2011, Network Rail’s climate change engineer John Dora said: “Britain’s railway today is resilient to adverse weather but, to safeguard its future, we must continue to stay prepared in managing the impact of climate change.” He said the company had a clear adaptation strategy and was working to understand the impacts of climate change.
In the meantime, bad weather can still catch us out.