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Gold medal performance for Olympics rail engineers

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Here we are in November, and yet it seems only yesterday that we were cheering on our athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London. It was all a great success, in many ways, but now we are left with those memories and the clearing up, some of which is still going on.

In typical fashion, everything was going to be a disaster – if you believed the mainstream media before the event. Not only would we fail to win enough medals, but there would be travel chaos for spectators travelling to and from the Olympic Park and other venues around the country.

The rail industry took those predictions seriously, although it had actually started planning at least four years earlier. In the end, there was no travel chaos, the games went like clockwork, and the world complimented Britain on the job it had done.

Many people will not have noticed the job that the railways did. That is as it should be, train services only become news when they aren’t working. When they run as planned, no-one talks about them.

The men tasked with making the railways invisible were Anglia route managing director Dave Ward and his infrastructure maintenance director Steve Hooker. Many of the Olympic services would run through their route anyway, but they were given the job of overseeing the whole programme.

Planning got off to an early start. The programme was split into four parts: organising routine maintenance so the Olympic period would be interruption-free, preparing the railway so that it was in the best condition possible, keeping the network open during the whole of the games, and returning to a normal maintenance schedule afterwards.

Organising routine maintenance

Many parts of the railway infrastructure are inspected and maintained to a timetable. Track recording trains work to a schedule. Some assets are inspected every eight weeks, or every twelve. It is all part of the routine that keeps the railway running.

However, booking a six week period of time when none of that was allowed to happen would severely disrupt that routine, not to mention break safety regulations.
So, four years ahead of time, the whole timetable was slowly adjusted. Twelve week cycles occasionally became eleven, or thirteen. By the time the Olympics came around, nothing was scheduled to happen in that critical six-week period. The last major track recording train movements on the key routes happened three weeks before the games, leaving just enough time for all the defects to be repaired before the maintenance shut-down commenced.

The operations teams were involved as well. At night, freight trains run along the lines normally used for passenger traffic during the day. With more late-night passenger trains running during the Olympics, different paths had to be found for freight using alternative and diversionary routes.

Preparing the routes

The next task was to make sure that every component of the network was in the best possible condition prior to the start of the games. This not only applied to the passenger routes, but the freight diversionary routes had to be up to the task as well.

Steve Hooker and his team worked hard to identify possible problem areas. Inspection standards were tightened up, and schedules for routine work such as track renewals accelerated.

One obvious problem area would be the overhead catenary on the Great Eastern main line. Time expired, it was currently being replaced in a major project, but it would only be half-finished by July. Work was therefore organised to ‘patch up’ the half that wouldn’t have been refurbished in time. Even though that work would be undone when those sections were replaced in the coming months and years, it was essential to minimise the chance of train delays.

A plan was already in place to replace point machines at Liverpool Street in 2015. The Olympic Delivery Authority paid for them to be replaced in 2012 instead, to make the most of improved performance and there were other examples of work being pulled forward.

The plan was to get the railway defect-free by 22 July. Normally there are around 6,500 defects on this area of railway awaiting attention. That isn’t as bad as it sounds, most are due to steady deterioration which need attention at some time but are not critical. However, to get to a defect-free condition is a lot of work.

It became even more work after a series of track quality recording train runs and detailed inspections. The last only three weeks before the games began, identified an actual total of 9,500 defects. The increase was caused by a deliberate tightening of standards to reduce the risk of any failure.

Maintenance teams were mobilised and extra time authorised, a total of 121,000 extra man hours of it. By the start of the games there were just 16 defects not rectified in time – and they were non-critical. It was a superb effort from everyone involved.

The appearance of the network wasn’t neglected either. An extra £10 million was spent on graffiti clean-up and vegetation removal. It was left until the last minute, so the graffiti didn’t reappear and the vegetation didn’t regrow, but the overall look of the railway was much improved.

Games time

Once the six week games period came around, the railway was as ready as it would ever be. Now it was time to implement the plans that would keep it running almost twenty-four hours a day.

Emergency maintenance teams were set up. Normally 20% of the workforce is deployed as rapid response teams. During the games it would be 80%.

Network Rail has a helicopter which monitors everything from track condition, the integrity of the fences, crowds, road vehicles, congestion and also inspects equipment from 1000 feet. During the games, there were three helicopters, one fitted with infra-red cameras to work at night. The main line into Liverpool Street was patrolled twice a day.

One cause of delays is, unfortunately, suicides. Samaritans had teams out patrolling stations and other areas looking for distressed people so they could be helped before it went that far. British Transport Police had four teams deployed around London that could reach any part of the network within twenty minutes. Two ambulances were on constant standby and a contractor’s ‘clean-up crew’ was also available at all times. As it happened, there were no suicides on the Great Eastern main line during the games. Well done, Samaritans.

Some work still had to be carried out at night. Critical tasks such as point lock tests couldn’t be put off. With only two hours a night of access in some areas, everything was pre-planned and went off without a hitch.

Remote condition monitoring (RCM) thresholds were adjusted. Normally, a set of points is visited by engineers when the activation current reaches 50% higher than normal. This was reduced to 20% so that problems could be caught early. Because of this, between ten and twelve sets of points were maintained every night and no failures occurred. The 20% threshold will be retained at many key locations when the railway returns to normal running.

Of course, nothing is ever perfect. The weather having been widely predicted to be wet and rainy was actually quite hot at the start of the games. This had two effects. Some of the old catenary got too hot, and the wires started to sag. Temporary speed restrictions were imposed locally but it wasn’t a major problem.

Most of the welded rail had already been prestressed as part of the preparatory works so that running wouldn’t be affected under 50°C rail temperature. Six sites on the North London Line had not been so prepared, and as temperatures rose they also had localised speed limits imposed. These were closely managed so that safety was assured and performance achieved.

There was one rail problem – a cracked crossing at Gidea Park. Normally there are five or six rail defects a week, each potentially resulting in around 4,000 minutes of service delays. This was the only one in the whole games period and, with the rapid response teams mobilised, the total effect was 500 minutes of delay and, with close cooperation from the TOCs, six cancelled trains.

And that was it. One cracked rail, some saggy catenary, and six sections of hot track with speed restrictions. In six weeks!

Staff redeployment

One of the fears had been that, with routine maintenance virtually cancelled for the games period, the infrastructure maintenance contractors would have nothing to do. Certainly, the rapid response teams were almost exclusively Network Rail employees and there was less other work going on. However, several of the second tier contractors were asked to carry out ballast clearing projects in preparation for the plain line recognition system that is being introduced towards the end of the year.

More graffiti and vegetation removal was undertaken, and other steps were taken to keep people in work.

There was also other work happening around the country. Track replacement and signalling installations on secondary and freight routes were stepped up and that also gave more work to some contractors.


Once the Paralympics were over, things could start to return to normal. Night-time access became easier, and routine work could start up again. A lot of the regular interval work that had been adjusted to fall outside of the games period started to become due, and those intervals can be slowly adjusted to give an even spread of work again.

Some lessons have been learned. The RCM results were far better than expected, and some of the revised alarm levels will be maintained. But at the end, it all came down to the hard work and cooperation of the men and women who maintain the railways.

“I am very proud of my guys,” said Steve Hooker. “I’m particularly proud of the way they responded to anything and everything. On several occasions, when we called a rapid-response team out to an incident, two or three would arrive – just to make sure everything was OK.”

“We had a response team for structures on call around the clock – something we don’t normally do. On-track machines were parked up ready – in fact there were men and women on standby all over London and the UK , just waiting to be called when they were needed. They did a wonderful job.”

The Olympic and Paralympic Games may be a once in a lifetime event, but Network Rail and the British railways proved they are up to the challenge. Along with the winners of gold, silver and bronze, the country can be truly proud of the men and women in orange.


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