Railway maintenance engineers are trained to understand fully the consequences involved when trains are delayed by track faults, signal failures, trees on the line or flooding, to name a few. Actions and procedures designed to minimise such events are in place and are being continually reviewed and refreshed. Readers of Rail Engineer will be aware of the many new initiatives that are currently being developed.

As the travelling public would expect, the engineers are in control and, if needs be, they can tighten their controls. For example, if an engineer is concerned about the track, a temporary speed restriction can be imposed to ensure that delays are kept to a minimum. These controls may not always be appreciated by the operating side of the house, but everyone knows where they stand and the key thing is that there are no surprises.

Operator’s nightmare

Well, that’s fine isn’t it? You may think so, but there is one type of delay caused by infrastructure instability that the railway engineer has little control over and that is when a lorry or large vehicle smashes into a bridge parapet wall or goes under a railway bridge too low to accommodate it.

This is known as “Bridge Bashing”, and it has been the bane of the railway industry for decades. It is sudden, unexpected, and can happen almost anywhere. It is an absolute nightmare for engineers and operators alike. It must also be a nightmare for the vehicle drivers involved, as well as the police who have to deal with the road traffic problems that result from such an incident.

There are around 1,800 bridge strikes each year, costing the UK economy around £23 million. While it is estimated that, on average, a bridge strike can cost Network Rail around £13,500., one at Rugeley, Staffordshire, in 2016 cost more than £800,000.

Over the years, awareness campaigns have been organised to try to reduce and manage this problem, but Network Rail has decided that enough is enough and, as a consequence, launched a nationwide campaign. To find out more, Rail Engineer went to see Mark Wheel, Network Rail’s senior engineer and bridge-strike champion.

Road hauliers’ awareness?

It was evident from the start that Mark, a career serving railway engineer, is passionate about railway bridges and structures and that he is determined to make a difference in his new role. By adopting a sustainable approach, Mark is confident that there will be a behavioral change. He has been working on bridge strikes for the last ten years so he has a good idea about priorities, one of which is to engage with and educate the road haulage companies whose vehicles cause the majority of the strikes.

To support this approach, Mark highlighted that research indicates that:

  • 43 per cent of lorry drivers admit to not knowing the size of their vehicles;
  • 52 per cent of lorry drivers admit to not taking low bridges into account when planning their journeys;
  • Five bridge strikes happen across the country every day with a peak of 10/day last October;
  • On average, each bridge strike causes at least two hours of delays to train services.

Research indicates that the peak at the end of October may be due to the hour change followed by increased deliveries ahead of Christmas. Figures show most bridge strikes happen between 10:00 and 11:00. However, they remain high all day until around 18:00 and can cause hours of travel chaos.

Another peak has been identified in midsummer, when regular drivers go on holiday and agency drivers are called upon.

Bridge strike champions

Each of Network Rail’s ten strategic routes has a bridge strike champion, providing a significant level of expertise that Mark is able to harness for gathering information and best practice as well as using the group to disseminate new ideas throughout the network.

On a number of occasions, Mark has also met Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, who is himself a driver of double-decker buses. Sir Peter clearly stated: “Size does matter when you’re a professional driver in a heavy vehicle. Not knowing the size of your vehicle or load could lead to a serious accident, and the loss of your license.”

Mark has realised that, for this initiative to be sustainable, the rail industry needs to involve and understand the world of the road haulier and work with them to identify the problems and ways of working together to create worthwhile sustainable solutions.

Responding to a bridge strike

Network Rail has more than 1,600 under-line and 160 over-line bridge structures that are considered at risk to bridge strikes.

A bridge at risk is assessed for its robustness to determine how it will fail when struck by a vehicle. Will it lift, slide or could it be damaged to such an extent that the structural capacity (strength) could be in doubt? This also takes into account such factors as the skew of the bridge and the construction of the bearings.

The bridge is then allocated a category and included in the Bridge Strike Appendix.

If the bridge is in the Red category, then it is likely to be lightweight, possibly cast iron. In this case, all trains would be stopped and the bridge would be inspected before the line is reopened to traffic.

The next level is the Amber category, involving structures strong enough to withstand an impact. However, there is a possibility that the deck could lift or slide if struck by a vehicle. In this case, the first train is allowed to pass over the bridge at 5mph following a strike and the train driver is asked to report anything they see which might cause concern. If there is nothing untoward reported, subsequent trains are allowed over the bridge at 20mph until it has been properly inspected.

This is followed by a Double Amber category. This is the same as Amber but trains are allowed to pass at line speed rather than 20mph.

Finally, there is the Green category where the structure is considered to be formidable, one that no road vehicle could dislodge. Trains are allowed to continue at line speed and a qualified mobile operating manager, accompanied by a bridge examiner, will carry out a joint inspection as soon as possible.

The Bridge Strike Appendix is kept by central control, which coordinates the response. The actions and requirements are then disseminated to the support groups in local signal boxes and on the ground. Also, central control will liaise with the police and local authorities and emergency groups that need to be informed and involved.

Campaign strategy

So that is how Network Rail currently responds to a bridge strike, and it appears to be a well thought through process. The big challenge now is how can bridge strikes be avoided in the first place or, at least dramatically reduced?

The answer is the new campaign previously mentioned which, unlike previous initiatives, embraces the road hauliers. The campaign’s title, “What the truck?” is designed to capture the imagination of HGV drivers and their haulage companies. One of a number of strap lines is “Lorries can’t limbo”, and I would imagine that “Size matters” is in there somewhere.

It’s not just a Network Rail initiative. Transport for London bridges are regularly struck as well. As Glynn Barton, director of network management at TfL, commented: “Disruption to the transport system caused by a small number of drivers not knowing the heights of their vehicles is completely avoidable.”

The strategy involves:

  • Engaging with the haulage and public transport industries;
  • Fitting steel beams on rail bridges where there are a large number of strikes to reduce the impact and damage to infrastructure;
  • Working with local authorities to ensure road signs displaying bridge heights are correct and up to date;
  • Calling for stricter enforcement of penalties for drivers when strikes do happen;
  • Increase awareness across the industry by involving key players, emphasizing the importance of preventing strikes before they happen;
  • Working with technical companies to understand if tools could be developed to highlight the risk when a vehicle approaches a low bridge.

Network Rail has already started to raise awareness of the issue by visiting logistics companies, as well as working with trade bodies such as the Road Haulage Association (RHA) to get the issue aired.

Specific focus is being directed at locations such as Stoke Road, in Stoke-on-Trent. This is a railway bridge that is struck on a regular basis. It carries the West Coast main line over the road and, in the last six years, the bridge has been struck 29 times by irresponsible drivers who clearly didn’t know the height of their vehicle.

Working with others

Eddie Stobart, DHL and Wincanton have been key partners for Network Rail and have already seen some great results from the work they have been doing to tackle the issue.

David Pickering, chief operating officer at Eddie Stobart, said: “We are pleased to be supporting Network Rail’s campaign as we have worked really hard to highlight the importance of our drivers knowing the height of their vehicles.

“As well as carefully planning routes to avoid low bridges, we carry out manual vehicle checks at the beginning of every journey which requires the driver to adjust the trailer height on a measurement in the cab.

“Additionally, we are installing software early next year which will warn drivers with an audible alarm when they are approaching a bridge. We have also tried some quirky ways of engaging drivers in the issue, including our giant giraffe ‘Bridget’ in our training academy which serves as a constant reminder to our drivers of why they need to be bridge aware!”

The RSSB has carried out a significant amount of research (Ref. T854) which has highlighted a number of significant key points, ranging from poor signage on roads to the inadequacy of certain satellite navigation systems.

So there is plenty to focus on, and additional incentives emerge when moving into the world of underwriting and risk management associated with insurance. Network Rail is now seeking to claim 100 per cent of all costs, including the significant costs payable to train operators under schedule 8.

It has taken some time for the courts to acknowledge this approach but, following a number of court cases, claims are now being settled out of court, with all sides recognising that, if a vehicle strikes and damages a railway bridge, the financial consequences as well as the business, social and personal consequences are going to be significant.

This will add a whole new dimension to the much needed “What the truck?” campaign. The intention is for it to run until April 2018. Meanwhile, for Mark and his team there is much to do but the signs that significant improvements will be made are very encouraging.

This article was written by Collin Carr.


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