When British Rail was privatised in 1994, ownership of the operating railway infrastructure passed to Railtrack and subsequently (in 2002) to Network Rail. However, those assets that related to closed lines, redundant bridges and tunnels, abutments, cuttings and viaducts, together known as the Burdensome Estate, first of all stayed with the British Railways Board and then, in 2001, were transferred to the British Railways Board (Residuary), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Strategic Rail Authority.
When the SRA was dissolved in 2005, BRBR passed to the Department for Transport. It was then split up in 2013, with the bulk of its 3,800 assets, including 74 listed structures, passing to the Highways Agency Historical Railways Estate.
With ownership passed the responsibility for inspecting and maintaining the structures, which are geographically widespread throughout England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. To manage the examination of this estate of structural property, new contracts were awarded by Highways England during 2015, dividing the workload into four lots, North, West, East and South. The first three of these were won by Carillion, while the South zone contract went to Balfour Beatty.
Every structure was to be given an annual visual examination. Tunnels are subject to a three-yearly detailed examination while all other structures have one every six years. Both visual and detailed examinations could be more frequent because of special circumstances or the need for more regular observation and/or monitoring.
With Carillion going into liquidation, responsibility for the whole estate was passed to Balfour Beatty, a company that had a wealth of experience as, in addition to the 2015 contract, it had actually been involved in delivering the southern area since 2003, examining an estate of non-operational structures over an area broadly south of a line between the Severn estuary and the Wash.
Richard Storey, Balfour Beatty’s examining engineer, told Rail Engineer that his existing team set about convincing senior management that taking over responsibility for the whole country would be well worth doing. It also allowed the business to provide secure employment for former Carillion employees who had been affected by its receivership in January 2018.
Balfour Beatty inherited a system, back in 2003, which produced paper examination reports with glued-on photographs. This was rapidly changed to an all-electronic reporting process within six months of commencement.
Since then, the company has lobbied for the use of a web-based data management system, having used one successfully with Network Rail as a JV partner delivering the Structures Assessment Contract in the South (2004-09). Highways England has recently adopted this type of data management system and the real time review of reports is now fully available.
Photographs and forms
This facility has been augmented with the use of both static photography and video capture of significant defects which require elevation or fast-track action. Balfour Beatty uses helmet cameras to assist in this process and augment the client understanding of specific areas of concern, such as structures working under load.
The helmet camera also provides a hands-free, safe method of capturing the data often from remote and difficult to access locations.
In addition, the Balfour Beatty team has also developed a standard drop-down form for visual examinations. This allows for the quick capture of information using prompts in a standard template, uploaded onto a tablet-type computer.
One of the largest risks for the client, as asset owner, is the potential failure of parapets due to accidental loading from vehicular traffic. Balfour Beatty has developed risk assessments with Highways England and other suppliers and these have progressed from a qualitative view of traffic, structure condition and location into a rigorous quantitative assessment, which has now been adopted.
Whilst the previous assessments produced a low/medium/high risk output only, the current one measures traffic flow, the robustness of each parapet, the road alignment, the areas affected by flying debris and the consequences of impact driven by these factors. Balfour Beatty has gone on to develop its own easy-capture data sheet, which allows the examiner to quickly and efficiently record all the required data and gives a set of prompts to ensure that there are no omissions.
Furthermore, in respect of difficult access structures such as confined space examinations, Balfour Beatty will undertake a rigorous assessment and, when safe to do so, will undertake the examination supported by a full rescue team.
One of the key factors in delivering an intense programme on time has been excellent communication. Identifying key issues in the programme, whether it is safety, environmental or even access, is vitally important so that the structures are examined in time.
Keeping key stakeholders such as Network Rail, local authorities, highway and river authorities, as well as the general public, informed on how the examination of a structure will be delivered has provided the platform for success.
Balfour Beatty’s approach to collaborative working has provided the tools to the examinations team to undertake early engagement on critical issues, and this will continue to be an important instrument as it goes on to deliver a national programme of detailed examinations.
The existing staffing for Balfour Beatty’s original contract was three examiners, a technical administrator and an examining engineer. With the additional areas taken on, the company is working towards increasing this to 17 as soon as possible.
Although it would have been good to inherit the Carillion staff, with their experience and local knowledge under their stewardship, this was not possible as the TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment) Regulations were not applicable in this case as Carillion had made its staff redundant. Fortunately, however, it has been possible for Balfour Beatty to re-recruit nine of the former Carillion staff – six examiners, a tunnel engineer, a senior structural engineer and a programme coordinator.
In taking on the new staff, one of the early challenges for the team has been to induct everyone into Balfour Beatty ‘thinking’ – especially the safety culture. Also, there has been a thorough review of competencies.
Because a high proportion of the examiners’ time is spent on site as lone workers, the Skyguard system is used. In the event of an examiner suffering an accident or sudden illness, this system allows help to be summoned, with GPS accuracy for the location of the casualty.
By June, most of the required extra staff had been recruited, inducted, kitted out with vans, phones, laptops and PPE and were ready to go, with only a couple of vacancies left to fill. In effect, it has actually only been a matter of a few weeks now since the resources have been fully in place to get back up to speed with the examinations. There will obviously be some catching up to do throughout this contract year.
In commencing work nationally, Balfour Beatty has found some significant differences from its original South lot. Firstly, the population of the structures in terms of the mix of types is different. Also, very few of the structures in the South are in urban areas, whereas there is a higher percentage elsewhere.
On the other hand, of course, in the three new lots, there are many more structures in fairly remote locations. Overall, these effects have meant that the planning resource required is bigger than simply a pro-rata adjustment.
Apart from the Balfour Beatty examination team’s original base at Redhill, Manchester and York are being used as regional centres. Other staff operate largely from home.
The transfer has gone smoothly. Dave Parker of the Historical Railways Estate commented on the early success of this contract transfer: “Highways England is extremely thankful to Balfour Beatty for rising to this significant challenge at short notice.”
It is worth mentioning some innovations that Balfour Beatty has introduced, one relatively simple, the other more sophisticated and undergoing successful trials.
First is the introduction of a digital camera attached to an elongated ‘selfie stick’, enabling examination of, for example, the spandrel walls of a viaduct, not otherwise easily visible at close range without scaffolding, a hydraulic platform or roped access.
The other promising development is in the use of a drone to fly alongside a large structure and take photographs at defined 3D coordinates that can then be exactly replicated on subsequent inspections, making it feasible to track changes in the structure’s condition. So far, this has been trialled at Pensford Viaduct on the closed Frome-North Somerset branch line.
Extension to other work
Experience on this contract will undoubtedly be put to use on other parts of Balfour Beatty’s workload. For example, the long-closed Rhondda Tunnel in South Wales (issue 160, February 2018) is being considered for possible reopening as a cycle route. The tunnel, which has been sealed shut since 1980, cannot be considered for re-opening until ownership is transferred to a Welsh Government body. This requires an understanding of the tunnel’s condition and maintenance liabilities to justify a change in ownership.
Work included replacing the cap on the sealed ventilation shaft with a hatch to allow Balfour Beatty experts to be lowered daily 20 metres down the shaft before they could carry out their examination. This lasted six days and consisted of a tactile inspection of almost two miles of the tunnel’s sidewalls, haunches and crown using mobile access towers and long tapping poles to verify the condition of the structure throughout.
The examination also addressed potential methods for the rectification of any defects to build a full understanding of the works required to make the tunnel suitable for re-opening. Now the examination team is assisting the technical services department in setting up remote monitoring of a ‘hinge’ fracture which is 1,000 metres from the nearest access, one of the tunnel shafts.
Rhondda Tunnel Society project secretary Tony Moon commented: “Balfour Beatty has been working in harmony with volunteers from the Rhondda Tunnel Society and we are thrilled as the examination work marks a significant step in the tunnel’s reopening. We are looking forward to the completed report that will help convince the Welsh Government that this Victorian masterpiece can be restored to become a major attraction to cyclists and walkers.”
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