Network Rail told: improve rail track standards

Network Rail has been told to improve 'declining' standards in its rail tracks by the Office of Rail Regulation. Picture: Getty

Network Rail has been told to improve 'declining' standards in its rail tracks by the Office of Rail Regulation. Picture: Getty

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ENFORCEMENT action over the “declining standards” of Scotland’s rail tracks has been taken against Network Rail by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), it announced today.

The ORR also criticised a fall in train punctuality this year, and delays to the upgrading of lines near Glasgow.

However, it praised the rail industry for “rising to the challenges of greatly increased passenger numbers” during the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup” - even though the influx had causes trains to run late.

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The regulator is concerned about the number of incidents where rails are repeatedly found to be at different levels from each other, known as twist faults, which is a “root cause” of rails breaking.

Official figures show Scotland is the second worst part for Britain for broken rails after the east coast main line area.

A spokesman said: “While the condition of the track in Scotland is sufficient to allow safe operation of the network, standards have declined in recent years.

“ORR has taken enforcement action to ensure improvement, and Network Rail is implementing a 24-point plan to improve track risk management and reduce the number of repeat twist faults.”

Problem area include on the Inverness to Wick/Thurso line, where the ORR said there were “significant challenges” because of the historic condition of the single-track line and previous maintenance.

The regulator said Network Rail was also doing less maintenance and upgrading work than planned elsewhere.

Expected progress on projects such as electrifying lines through Rutherglen and Coatbridge had not been made.

However, work on the Borders Railway, which is due to open between Edinburgh and Tweedbank next September, was “progressing well”.

The ORR also said train performance was slightly lower than expected, and efforts to improve it might be being hindered by Network Rail using unreliable information for planning engineering work.

This included on bridges and earthworks beside tracks.

Train punctuality is running at 91.4 per cent - 0.2 per cent below target.

ORR chief executive Richard Price said: “Network Rail and the Scottish rail industry did well to meet the challenges from increased passenger numbers during major events such as the Commonwealth Games, however, train punctuality has dipped recently.

“The regulator has concerns about the reliability of some of the information Network Rail depends upon to take decisions about how to achieve and sustain high levels of punctuality and financial performance.”

Network Rail said Scotland’s booming rail network - where passengers have increased by a third over the last ten years to some 90 million, had brought its own problems.

Its spokesman said: “Over the last decade, we have seen the network grow considerably – both through the opening of new lines and stations, and in its ability to deliver for passengers and taxpayers, through rising punctuality levels and falling costs.

“Increasing capacity on a complex network, at the same time as keeping it running every day, is the challenge we face and we have clear strategies to deliver the improvements required, both to the network and our stewardship of it.”

The spokesman admitted the electrification project was “slightly behind the ambitious targets we set ourselves”, but said it had been completed four years earlier than originally planned.

Dunfermline and West Fife Labour MP Thomas Docherty has called for urgent talks with Network Rail chiefs over “ingrained poor practice” in workforce safety in Scotland which was highlighted in the ORR report, which he described as unacceptable.

Mr Docherty, who used to work for the firm, said: “This should be a wake-up call to rail bosses who have clearly been complacent for too long.

“I will seeking an urgent meeting with Network Rail managers to discuss how they intend to meet their responsibilities to protect their workforce.”

The ORR said workforce safety had deteriorated since last year, with the death and injury rate doubling by mid October.

Incidents included a contractor being seriously injured when his quad bike plunged 30ft down a cutting near North Berwick in April.

The ORR said: “There does not appear to be a single key driver to this, but we believe there is a contribution from ingrained poor practice yet to be removed by safety culture improvement.

“The largest contribution to the figure comes from incidents within Network Rail’s central control.”

A Network Rail spokesman said: “Safety, for both passengers and staff, is our primary focus.

“Today’s railway is one of the safest forms of travel, and the safest railway in Europe, and we have extensive systems in place for monitoring safety and for reporting any unsafe working practices.

“We are working with our contractors and the ORR to review the incidents noted in the report and have already put in place changes as a result of our own internal investigations.”

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