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Trouble with track

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It could be argued that the most important asset that a railway has is its track. On Network Rail’s website, under ‘About Us’, it states: “Network Rail owns, operates and develops Britain’s railway infrastructure. That’s 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts and the thousands of signals, level crossings and stations. We manage 20 of the UK’s largest stations while all the others, over 2,500, are managed by the country’s train operating companies.”

The 20,000 miles of track comes first on that list.

Follow the ‘track’ link, and the site states: “We’re responsible for looking after Britain’s rail network, including maintaining and renewing 20,000 miles of track.

“When we talk about railway track, we mean the whole structure that trains run on, including:

  • Rails – these are the lengths of steel that are welded together.
  • Sleepers – these are supports for the rails.
  • Switches and crossings – these are moveable sections of track that guide trains from one track to another and allow them to cross paths. They have an especially limited lifespan because trains cause wear and deformation when they travel across them.
  • Sets of points – these are mechanical systems that move the switches and crossings.”

So, Network Rail sees track as being important, and it breaks that down into three elements – rails, sleepers and switches and crossings (S&C), which includes points (London Underground even calls them ‘points and crossings (P&C)’ rather than ‘switches and crossings’).

All three track elements have been in the news recently.


In the UK, steel rails are made at Scunthorpe. This is an integrated steel works – it has a blast furnace and makes first iron, then steel, then rolls it into rails.

The works has had several owners over the years. Recently it was British Steel Corporation, then Corus, next Tata, and was finally purchased in June 2016 by Graybull Capital, an “entrepreneurial investment group, whose purpose is to improve businesses for all stakeholders”, and its name was changed ‘back’ to British Steel.

To start with, it looked as though Graybull did indeed improve the business. A £79 million loss in Financial Year 16 became a £47 million profit in FY17 and an even larger profit in FY18.

However, those figures didn’t tell the whole story and Graybull placed the company into liquidation in May 2019. It wasn’t Graybull Capital that went into liquidation, just British Steel.

Network Rail, the largest user of rail in the UK, had three companies contracted to supply rails on zero-value frameworks, British Steel, Voestalpine (Austria) and Arcelor Mittal (Spain), although the reality was that it took around 95 per cent of its 100,000-tonne annual requirement from British Steel.

When what was then Network Rail’s National Delivery Service (NDS) agreed the contract with Corus that underpinned the move of rail rolling from Workington to Scunthorpe in 2005, one of the key objectives was to obtain 108-metre lengths of rail ‘as rolled’, without the need to weld shorter lengths together. These themselves could then be welded into 216-metre lengths before delivery to site.

To make sure that it could obtain satisfactory supplies from its other two suppliers, Network Rail brought in batches of long length rails from both of them. Those from Voestalpine came to the UK both through the channel tunnel and by sea, the deliveries from Arcelor Mittal came only by sea. Some of the latter came as short lengths, welded up at Network Rail’s own Eastleigh facility, but at least one delivery of long lengths was made as well, proving it could be done.

In addition, Network Rail created several stockpiles of rail, one in a dedicated area on the Scunthorpe site and others around the country, close to the regions and routes that would use it.

Several organisations looked at acquiring British Steel from the liquidators, including two from Turkey. Network Rail even explored the possibility of buying some of the facilities used for rail finishing if it looked as though the plant would otherwise close down. However, the plant was eventually sold to Jingye of China, so Network Rail’s supply was safe, although the stockpiles and the proven possibility of volume supply from elsewhere no doubt gave some comfort as well.

While Network Rail was satisfied, the situation wasn’t so good for UK PLC. British Steel had two rolling mills – the one at Scunthorpe and another at Hayange in Northern France, the former Sogerail operation acquired by Corus in 1999. Both of these plants could roll long lengths.

All the raw steel was made in Scunthorpe, but around 400,000 tonnes a year of steel ‘blooms’ were shipped off – by rail – to Hayange for rolling. Although much of that rail was then sold to French national railway company SNCF and the German equivalent Deutsche Bahn (DB), a little did come back to the UK. For example, Crossrail had used some heat-treated rail, and the only heat-treatment facility was in Hayange.

Some railway applications require the use of hardened steel rails to withstand heavy use. That can be achieved in two ways – to make the rails out of a steel alloy that is inherently harder and tougher than that normally used for rail (the Scunthorpe solution), or to make the rails out of a heat-treatable grade of steel and then put them through a heat-treatment oven (the Hayange solution).

Network Rail uses only the former, so it wasn’t affected when Hayange was split off from the sale of British Steel to Jingye. The French Government viewed the supply of rail as a strategic resource, and it didn’t want to have it in the hands of a Chinese company, so Hayange was pulled out of the deal. As a result, Hayange resourced its steel supply elsewhere, the UK lost 400,000 tonnes of steel exports and 450 Scunthorpe workers lost their jobs.


As well as 100,000 tonnes of rail a year, Network Rail uses around 800,000 concrete sleepers, although the quantity can vary significantly year-on-year.

The bulk of these sleepers conform to the G44 pattern, a heavy, steel-reinforced monobloc sleeper designed for 30-tonne axle loads and 140mph running. There are a couple of other patterns of concrete sleepers, including the shallower EG47, and Network Rail still uses some wooden and some pressed steel sleepers, but G44 is by far the largest usage.

Network Rail used to have two main suppliers for these sleepers. Tarmac from its plant at Tallington, near Stamford in Lincolnshire, and RMC at Washwood Heath in Birmingham. RMC was bought out by the Mexican Cemex group in 2004.

Tarmac was to cease production of concrete sleepers at Tillington, and the Washwood Heath works was right in the path of HS2 and likely to be demolished, so Network Rail acted to maintain supplies. It reached an accommodation with Trackwork Moll, a joint venture between UK company Trackwork (49%), supplier of a limited amount of S&C and of wooden sleepers, and German sleeper manufacturer Lenard Moll (51%). Trackwork Moll would set up a manufacturing unit in a purpose-built Network Rail facility in Doncaster and manufacture around 400,000 concrete sleepers a year.

The sleepers manufactured by Leonard Moll in Germany were of a lighter design, and these were manufactured on ‘carousels’, a series of moulds arranged radially on a circular rotating bed. The steel reinforcements were laid into each mould separately.

However, the heavy British sleepers had always been made using a long-line method, with the moulds arranged lengthways in rows and with the pre-tensioned reinforcement rods running through them down the length of the factory. Once the concrete sleepers are set, the rods are cut and the individual sleepers can be lifted out of the moulds.

Trackwork Moll decided to use the long-line method at Doncaster. Its engineers felt that, if a carousel were to be used, this would require massive steel end anchors at both ends of each sleeper for the tensioning strand, which would significantly increase the cost.

Although the Doncaster factory is working well, it was never intended to make more than 40-50 per cent of Network Rail’s requirements. So, the infrastructure owner looked to make a second, similar arrangement and to build a second sleeper factory, this time in the West Midlands. This was a logical choice as it would give employment opportunities to the skilled Cemex workforce that could be out of a job once HS2 acquired the Washwood Heath site, which was planned for late 2016.

A rail-connected site at Bescot, in Sandwell, was chosen, and a deal struck with another German manufacturer, RailONE.

The contract that RailONE won was based on it using a carousel method. To make sure that this would produce satisfactory product, after the doubts that had previously been voiced, a batch of G44 sleepers was produced, independently assessed and approved.

However, residents local to the Bescot site fought a vigorous campaign against the proposed factory. The ‘People of Wednesbury Say NO to Network Rail’ group claimed that the factory would create air pollution and traffic congestion, estimating that the proposal would add an additional 75,000 vehicle movements a year to already busy roads.

To appease the protesters, Network Rail redesigned the layout of the site, moving the factory further from residential properties, but it did no good. Despite the company assuring planners that the true number of vehicle movements would be 7,500 a year, not 75,000, protesters raised 800 formal objections and obtained 5,000 signatures on a petition. Planning officers recommended Sandwell Council to reject the planning application, and it did.

This is when Network Rail had a piece of good fortune. Delays to the HS2 programme meant that Cemex’s Washwood Heath factory didn’t close at the end of 2016 as anticipated, but not until 2020. This allowed Network Rail to not only keep supplied but also to build up stockpiles at Tyne Yard and Carlisle Kingmoor. Those stockpiles, of close to one million sleepers, are sufficient, with the Trackwork Moll factory in full production, to keep Network Rail going for two and a half years.

But that shouldn’t be needed, as Network Rail is close to announcing a new partner, a new location, and a new factory that should be in production in around a year’s time.

Switches and Crossings

The third element of the track ‘family’ is switches and crossings. Network Rail has recently invited companies to tender for four packages of work (with the first three being the more important):

  • Renewals layouts (major layouts that need a lot of work at the factory and careful installation)
  • Maintenance S&C products
  • Cast manganese crossings
  • Niche products, such as switch roller systems.

The invitation to tender (ITT) incorporated significant commercial changes. Minimum volume guarantees and underwritten costs were intended to give all tenderers the opportunity to leverage market strength. 

Previously, one supplier had built up a dominant market position and this had enabled it to develop a strong technical base and to provide support to Network Rail that others could not under legacy nil-value frameworks. However, with long-term contracts and committed volumes, Network Rail intended to level the playing field, expecting the winning bidders to be able to increase investment in expertise and infrastructure.

The new contracts were intended, not only to secure quality products aligned with railway standards, but also to deliver a product in a shorter lead-time, at a more efficient price for UK taxpayers.

The ITT went out to a number of companies, including:

  • Progress Rail, the successor to Balfour Beatty and Network Rail’s largest supplier of major layouts and cast manganese crossings;
  • Vossloh Cogifer, formerly Corus Cogifer;
  • Voestalpine Turnout Technology (formerly VAE UK);
  • Trackwork.

A few smaller producers were also involved, mainly for the niche products.

Thirteen months after the bids were submitted, following a number of clarifications and a re-pricing exercise, Network Rail informed the bidders of the outcome.

  • Progress Rail was offered eight zero-value frameworks;
  • The major renewals layouts would be split between Trackwork and Vossloh Cogifer;
  • Maintenance S&C products would be split between Trackwork, Vossloh Cogifer and Voestalpine, and would be included in Progress Rail’s zero-value contracts;
  • Around 80 per cent of cast manganese crossings would be purchased from Voestalpine’s foundry in Spain. The balance would be split between Voestalpine and Vossloh Cogifer, which was offered a nil-value contract. Progress Rail did not bid on this nil-value framework so could not be offered any of the residual work.

This result was a major change to the status quo. The two major suppliers of complex and sophisticated track layouts were not to get any of that work in future. Their staff, who had built up years of experience in the field and who advised Network Rail on the design and installation of these layouts, as well as building them, would no longer be involved.

Having lost the manganese crossings business, Progress Rail issued redundancy notices to its 147 workers at the South Queensferry foundry and announced its intention to close the site by Christmas 2020. These notices have, apparently, now been rescinded.

It looked likely that it would do the same at Sandiacre, Beeston and Sheffield, where it employs another 310 people. Instead, it issued a legal challenge to Network Rail’s procurement process.

Trade union Unite, while critical of Progress Rail’s rapid issuing of redundancy notices, was also scathing about Network Rail. National officer Harish Patel said: “It is completely nonsensical for Network Rail to cut Progress Rail, whose specialist sites have been producing UK railway components for generations, almost completely out of its supply chain.

“Progress Rail is home to a world-class manufacturing workforce, holds the exclusive patterns for around 800 components and is the only UK firm with the capability to ensure that parts do not need to be brought in from abroad.

“The company has stated to Unite that this is about Network Rail prioritising cost over quality and both Progress Rail and our members have genuine concerns that opening the door to cheaply made parts will jeopardise track safety as well as vital UK manufacturing jobs.”

On its website, Unite added: “Progress Rail, which is owned by Caterpillar, has accused Network Rail of prioritising cost over quality. In a letter to the union, the firm stated there is a ‘very real risk to the integrity and security of the UK rail network arising from Network Rail’s decision’.

“The firm’s workers have also told Unite that they believe this to be the case, after having had to reject cheaply made parts from other suppliers for unrelated reasons on previous occasions.”

So, Network Rail’s procurement of S&C has ruffled some feathers, although, no doubt, it would claim it had not prioritised cost over quality and there is no resultant risk to the integrity and security of the UK rail network. It would seem likely that any legal challenge by Progress Rail could have difficulty, as Network Rail has probably followed its procurement processes exactly. Whether it gave the outcome that Progress Rail and others wanted, that’s another matter.

Still, Network Rail has a good supply of all three track elements – rail (British Steel supplying and regional stockpiles), sleepers (Trackwork Moll in full production and a large stockpile to see it through until the second factory comes online) and S&C (a reorganisation of suppliers but confident that they can meet the challenge).

The other track users in the UK – Transport for London (30,000 sleepers a year) – Crossrail (infrastructure complete) and HS2 (around 480 miles of rail over the next five years) should also be adequately covered.

So, although there has been some ‘trouble with track’, it should be nothing to worry about.


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