Additional reporting by Ilaria Grasso Macola

The UK’s Network Rail has launched two independent task forces in a bid to develop a better understanding of severe weather events and improve earthworks management.

The move comes weeks after a fatal train derailment near Stonehaven, Scotland, where the train’s conductor, driver and a passenger died.

The weather action task force will carry out a review to assess the impact of heavy rainfall on Network Rail’s rail infrastructure.

It will also assess the effectiveness of Network Rail’s use of existing forecasting and weather monitoring technology, as well as identify ways in improving it.

The weather task force will also evaluate the usefulness of considering local weather factor while undertaking engineering decisions among other works.

This task force will be led by Dame Julia Slingo, meteorologist and former chief scientist at the UK Met Office.

The Earthworks management task force will work to help Network Rail in improving the management of its earthworks portfolio that includes high-risk assets such as cuttings and embankments.

Overall, the scope of works will assess the effectiveness of the current drainage and earthworks asset management approach, the suitability of Network Rail’s controls framework, and identify if the latest technologies for such works are adequately deployed.

Led by former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers Lord Robert Mair, the panel will also assess if Network Rail needs to bolster certain teams or regions for improved earthworks and drainage management.

Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines said: “The Stonehaven tragedy resulted in three people losing their lives – this is a stark reminder that we must never take running a safe railway for granted.

“With more and more extreme weather and tens of thousands of earthwork assets across Great Britain, our challenge is massive.

“And while we are making a record investment in these areas, we have asked world-renowned experts, Dame Julia Slingo and Lord Mair, to help us address these issues as effectively as possible, and at pace.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps welcomed “these task forces as a step towards understanding the issues involved”. Downing Street also asked Network Rail “for a wider assessment of the impact of poor weather on Britain’s network, with an interim report published in early September”.

“We look forward to seeing the work undertaken, in addition to plans from Network Rail responding to the requirement we set out in our annual report for improvements to the monitoring of assets and more sophisticated responses to forecast adverse weather,” an ORR spokesperson told Railway Technology.

According to a report published in 2018 by Network Rail on safety in the earthwork portfolio, most of the 19,000km of assets currently under its jurisdiction were constructed during the 19th century, before the proper development of engineering.

This led to numerous embankments and cuttings, making the network more difficult to manage and disadvantaged when it comes to weather resilience. “The asset count, age, degradation, and current rate of strengthening provide a unique management challenge on a macro scale,” read the report.