The Christmas and New Year holiday period is always a particularly busy one for Network Rail. Writes Kevin Groves, head of media for Network Rail.

The opportunity to close parts of the network for a few days, without unduly inconveniencing passengers, allows us to carry out work that would be difficult, or even impossible, at any other time of year.

Planning for these blockades can take years, with everything being prepared in advance down to the smallest detail. Lengthy projects are naturally the most complex and, with many happening over the same holiday period, limited resources such as plant and equipment, engineering trains and key staff have to be shared between each of them.

This year there was an added complication. During the two weeks, the railway dealt with extreme weather on top of the planned unprecedented investment programme.

Despite the many challenges, we were able to successfully deliver a £110 million investment programme – the largest ever undertaken over a two-week period. Some 6,000 people worked in often challenging conditions to deliver over 300 projects aimed at improving and expanding the network for the benefit of its millions of daily users.

As ever, safety was the industry’s top priority in the face of widespread and often unpredictable damage to the infrastructure. On a number of occasions, Network Rail and train operators took the decision to introduce blanket speed restrictions to reduce the risk caused by fallen trees and, in some instances, delayed the start-up of services so routes could be checked by empty trains in daylight for obstructions and debris. These precautions, and those used during the investment programme, meant the railway experienced no serious injury to passengers, employees or contractors.

Severe weather

Network Rail’s planned programme of investment work for the Christmas and New Year period was put at serious risk as a series of deep low pressure weather systems marched across the Atlantic in quick succession, bringing very high winds and extreme rainfall.

The Met Office has described December as one of the windiest and wettest since 1969 with wind gusts in Wales recorded at 109mph and rainfall for the UK for December at 154% above average. This masks some extreme local variations with southern England seeing well over twice the normal amount of rainfall and in some locations, even more.

The impact of the severe weather was felt in three ways: » Wind, trees, obstructions and overhead line issues – almost 400 trees fell onto our infrastructure, a significant proportion of which came from neighbouring properties, and there were 33 overhead line incidents where fallen debris and trees brought down power-lines;

  • Rain and flooding – around 170 flooded sites, some of which resulted in the entire track-bed being washed away;
  • Tidal damage, loss of coastal railways and landslides – 29 landslips blocked several major routes (such as the Brighton main line) and some will take many weeks to repair. In places, our coastal routes where the railway acts as a sea defence, particularly those on the Cambrian and Cumbrian coasts, have been washed away.

In total, 3,000 additional shifts were needed to repair the damage caused by the storms between 20 December and 5 January.

Keeping everyone informed

Network Rail took a proactive decision to lead how the industry prepared for both the planned improvement work and response to the storms.

Communication was key, with the lessons learnt from previous events and employed so well before and during the St Judes storm implemented again before and during this two-week period. An extensive advertising campaign in national and regional press, online and at stations advising passengers to check their plans before travelling because of our extensive planned investment programme ran from early December. Much more proactive, earlier, and targeted communications about the particularly large amount of work on the Brighton main line affecting Gatwick over the Christmas period also took place.

Where the weather forecasting predicted particularly tumultuous weather, early decisions were made to introduce blanket speed restrictions or delay the start-up of services enabling amended timetables to be uploaded onto railways systems and thus onto outward facing information systems such as the National Rail Enquiry Service. Much proactive media and social media work was undertaken to advise passengers of the impact these decisions would have on services well in advance, enabling people to make informed decisions.

We also worked with train operators to ensure that key stakeholders, especially within the DfT who were liaising with the Cabinet Office’s COBRA crisis process, were kept well informed about our work, the conditions being experienced, the impact felt by our passengers and employees and the actions we were taking.

With Network Rail and train operator controls all co-located, joined up decision making was assured, enabling prompt implementation of EWATs (Emergency Weather Action Teams), contingency timetables and communication.

Appropriate decisions were made by our joint control rooms to prioritise running services, getting passengers to their destinations, especially on 23 and 24 December, rather than attempt to run to a timetable and protect PPM (Public Performance Measure). Our view, as expressed to stakeholders, is that PPM is not the right measure to judge the performance of the industry at times of extreme weather.

Up Quarry [online]The Secretary of State for Transport has thanked us for our efforts and commitment, and both the Transport Select Committee and ORR (Office of Rail Regulation) have recognised that we made the right calls.

Thousands of our engineers worked in extreme conditions to repair the network to keep trains and passengers and freight moving. Their dedication and professionalism has been acknowledged in communications across the business.

Work continues to repair damage, which in some areas could take many weeks to complete. And with the extreme weather continuing, more damage is being experienced and winter has yet to bring its first serious snow and ice conditions.

Planned improvement programme

Network Rail had planned its largest ever two-week investment period over the festive season due to start from close of service on Christmas Eve with almost all planned to have been completed by the early hours of 2 January. Despite the weather, the bulk of this work was delivered as planned.

This improvement work has benefitted passengers and businesses alike with new and longer platforms, better stations and more capacity for extra passenger and freight services delivered. The projects carried out over the period are just a small part of our plan for a bigger, better railway helping the network to be better able to cater for the continuing growth in demand for rail travel.

In total, the Christmas and New Year work programme involved 4,700 worksites in 1,724 possessions (a 42% increase on last year) with over 6,000 people working in excess of 600,000 man hours. In all, 319 projects were completed (270% increase from the Christmas period at the start of the current control period) and 99% of the possessions were handed back on time.

Some of the highlights of the £110 million work programme included:

  • A new platform, track and signalling equipment at Gatwick Airport station. Around 1300 metres of track was laid, a 50 metre long footbridge renewed and a total of 250 metres of new platform, complete with a new lift, escalators and high- level walkway to the station, completed.
  • Commissioning of new signalling equipment at Peterborough, part of a wider project to relieve a major bottleneck on the East Coast main line which includes a new track layout, longer platforms, station bridges, extensions and new lifts.

Electrification work at Manchester Victoria, which saw 400 metres of track lowered and 1300 tonnes of spoil removed to create additional headroom for overhead power lines so electric trains can run from Manchester to Liverpool starting in December. Installation of a new rail bridge in Ipswich, part of a 1.1km stretch of new railway connecting the East Suffolk line and Great Eastern main line to increase rail capacity to the port of Felixstowe (due for completion March 2014).

A major upgrade of Gravesend station. This included lengthened platforms allowing longer 12-car trains to call at the station for the first time, providing more seats and extra space for passengers. There will also be improved facilities including a new footbridge and lifts to all platforms (due for completion May 2014).

Delivering the programme required significant flexibility by employees, many of whom worked through their family holidays, and substantial re- planning as both the weather and network damage required projects to be continuously re- planned.

Careful planning and flexible response

In the end, the most challenging Christmas and New Year period in living memory was successfully managed by a combination of careful pre- planning and highly responsive decision-making.

The rail industry made deliberate decisions to protect passenger safety by introducing blanket speed restrictions and, in exceptional circumstances, delaying the start-up of services following particularly stormy conditions. These precautions proved to be effective as hundreds of trees were found by our route proving trains that had to be cleared before starting passenger services.

The industry also chose to prioritise getting people to their destinations rather than protect PPM, especially on 23 and 24 December. Millions of people were safely and successfully delivered to their destinations during abysmal conditions and the current method of measuring the industry’s success cannot, and does not, recognise this.

The largest, most intense period of investment was also planned and, in the vast majority of cases, successfully delivered, despite the conditions, through close working and dynamic planning and cooperation.

We are still assessing the cost of the damage caused to our network over the last few weeks of storms. Flooding events continue to impact services as any rainfall causes more problems due to the already oversaturated ground conditions.

The cost of repairs will run into tens of millions of pounds. However, managing the worst December weather since 1969 while, at the same time, delivering the largest programme of Christmas work in years, must be judged a success. We can only express our thanks to all our staff, and those of our contractors, whose dedication and enthusiasm made it all possible.