Over Christmas, Network Rail successfully invested more than £150 million to improve the railway across the country.

The Orange Army built new signalling, new bridges, new track and new facilities – all to give passengers better, more reliable journeys.

The investment will benefit millions of people. Commuters, families, friends; young or old, north or south, urban or rural; the impact the railway has on this country cannot be overstated. Whether you use the railway regularly or rarely (and more people than ever are using it regularly with passengers numbers having doubled to 4.5 million per day since 1997 and are set to double again in the next 25 years) the railway plays a vital role in our lives.

As well as passenger trains, rail freight carrying everything from cars, fuel for our power stations and the latest technology gadgets to your weekly grocery shop contributes £1.6 billion to the UK economy. That figure is predicted to rise to £2 billion by 2023. The demand from passengers and businesses to get more trains on the tracks brings with it immense challenges.

For some, Christmas might be the only time in a year they travel by train, but figures show (and the rest of the industry agrees) it is the quietest time of the year, and therefore the best time to work on it.

Network Rail has no rights to shut the railway and carry out our work when it feels like it, we need to consult and agree with the train and freight operators. However, train operators tell us that passenger numbers drop by up to 50 per cent during bank holidays such as Christmas and, while the reality is that there is no good time to do the essential work that is required, doing big projects and pieces of work over the Christmas and New Year period causes the least disruption and enables operators to offer decent alternative transport arrangements, especially as fewer people are travelling.

But we know from hard experience, of more than a year ago now, that getting it wrong and not ensuring that passengers are properly looked after has disastrous consequences.

The chaos, confusion and anger at Finsbury Park the Christmas before last remains etched on the minds of all of those who were involved.

he awful experience endured by the thousands of passengers who turned up expecting to travel on 27 December 2014 was unacceptable and one the entire rail industry never wants to see repeated.

What could have gone wrong, did go wrong, and the result was one of the worst experiences in my working career. We care deeply about those people who depend on the railway and, although the pictures on television screens, in newspapers and on social media sometimes tell a different story, I know from travelling the length and breadth of the country, meeting hundreds of members of the Orange Army, that our frontline staff feel the same way. They take a huge amount of pride in their jobs. They want to succeed and to return the railway in a better state than they found it.

The reality about major engineering work on the railway at Christmas is that, while 95 per cent of the network is unaffected, the five per cent takes years to plan. We started planning for Christmas 2015 back in 2012, firstly to identify what needed improving, then prioritising which areas needed more work than could be completed over a normal night or weekend shift.

Some people think that we save all our work up to do at bank holidays and wonder why we can’t do it at nights or weekends, but the reality is we’re out maintaining and improving the network every night of the week, not just bank holidays – last year alone LNE route did 16,000 jobs during evenings and weekends. Bank holidays allow us more time to do the biggest, most complicated pieces of work – such as demolishing and rebuilding bridges – while impacting the fewest people.

The Railway Upgrade Plan delivered this Christmas was the biggest yet, with over 8,000 worksites located in some 2,600 possessions on over 500 individual projects.

We had well over 20,000 employees and contractors’ staff working over the ten days.

The lessons of Christmas 2014 have now become part of our DNA and have proven their effectiveness with some £250 million of investment in hundreds of projects successfully completed in the four bank holiday work programmes since then – Easter, the two May bank holidays and August bank holiday.

Plan A was for all 500 Christmas projects to go exactly to plan. But things happen and then it becomes about contingency – plan B.
What if work falls behind? What if a machine fails or a train breaks or a driver phones in sick? What if the weather plays a part and we get blizzards or floods or gales that stop cranes working? How do problems at one site impact another? At what point can we stop the work or scale it back?
Our planning and operational teams across the country spent months analysing every scenario, what the consequences might be, and how we would deal with it. No stone was left unturned. Plans A and B were supported by an entire alphabet of alternatives and, like the railway itself, the decision-making process has been vastly upgraded.

The one thread that ran through every project, every review and every decision was simple; what might be the impact on passengers? In the past year we have changed how we deliver major upgrades and are working even more closely with train operators to make sure that every engineering decision is made with full sight of what that will mean for passengers and, importantly, how we are going to communicate with them. You may have seen our ‘Working For You’ advertising campaign featuring track section manager Barry Robinson from Leeds.

Despite the atrocious weather conditions, virtually all of our work was handed back safely and on time, with all our ‘top 20’ projects – the biggest and potentially most disruptive – handing back early. Over the period there were no major injuries and from the 2,600 possessions taken there were just 14 incidents of possessions overrunning and impacting operators. Most of these were very minor with the total number of delay minutes for the entire duration at under 400. As such, 99.02% of all possessions were handed back without impact to customers and we lost only 1% of our planned work owing to weather or decision to scale back to ensure right-time handback.

Thanks to all the preparation and planning, incorporating the lessons from Christmas 2014, the 2015 Christmas and New Year investment programme was a great success. A huge ‘well done’ and ‘thank you’ goes out to the tens of thousands of railway workers, planners, engineers, signallers, S&T staff, traincrew, crane operators, welders, station staff and numerous others who made this possible and should feel proud of all that has been achieved.

And a lot of this was done in some truly awful weather conditions where, once again, our people responded and put back together a railway that the weather had broken in hundreds of locations across the country.

This opinion piece was written by Francis Paonessa, managing director, infrastructure projects, Network Rail.