The owner of Britain’s rail infrastructure is putting at risk passenger safety and train reliability by failing to clear a backlog of inspections of bridges, tunnels and other structures, the industry’s regulator has warned.
The Office of Rail and Road on Monday urged Network Rail to address its “limited progress” in dealing with the problem and published figures showing tens of thousands of outstanding inspections of structures across the network.
In a letter to the state-owned company, ORR chief executive John Larkinson said failure to monitor the state of structures as required meant faults could go undetected or be detected but not properly assessed.
“In some cases this could lead to a safety incident,” Larkinson wrote. “It could also result in speed restrictions being put in place to mitigate the safety risk, making it more difficult to run trains on time.”
The UK’s last rail crash to cause passenger fatalities — near Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire, in August 2020 — came after a train hit a landslide from a collapsed section of cutting.
Train services on the normally busy route between Oxford and Didcot have been severely disrupted since April after Network Rail engineers identified a sudden deterioration in the state of a bridge over the river Thames at Nuneham, Oxfordshire.
The watchdog in its letter did not specify the number of inspections not carried out on time. But an annex included graphs detailing the total amount of missed work, which showed inspections on about 23,000 structures had either not been completed on time or had been undertaken but not submitted. The network has roughly 70,000 structures altogether.
There have long been concerns that more extreme weather resulting from global warming is increasing the strain on railway infrastructure. Some embankments have suffered structural problems in extreme hot, dry weather, while bridges have frequently suffered damage from underwater scouring caused by torrential downpours into rivers.
The regulator gave Network Rail until June 30 to submit an initial plan to deal with the backlog and urged it to make more use of new technology, such as drones, in its inspections.
Martin Frobisher, Network Rail’s safety and engineering director, said the company had been enacting “recovery measures” to bring inspections up to date since the ORR first raised concerns in 2021, but said it had further to go.
“Between February and April 2023 there has been a 9 per cent improvement in examination non-compliance,” he said, adding: “We are liaising closely with the ORR to get back on track. A plan will be submitted . . . by the end of June.”