HomeInfrastructureWeathering the storm –Asset inspection on the railway network

Weathering the storm –
Asset inspection on the railway network


The British rail network has some 60,000 assets, spread across the UK, and each one needs to be inspected on a regular basis, to identify both its condition and any work needed to maintain it in a safe operating condition. That information is then used to inform the maintenance teams that keep on top of the daily wear and tear caused to Europe’s busiest rail network. 

One of the biggest dangers is from extreme weather in all its forms – rainfall, heatwaves, cold snaps, high winds, and prolonged warm spells. Examples include the “Beast from the East”, which covered the UK in inches of snow in a matter of hours back in 2018. Storm Dennis, in February 2020, will be remembered for its devastating winds and heavy rainfall, causing severe flooding.

As seen on Harry Potter – the Glenfinnan viaduct on the Mallaig line.

These type of events impact upon the UK’s infrastructure and the people that use them every day. And this is often the time when asset inspection teams are seen out and about, keeping people safe and the network operational.

Working behind the scenes, making these inspections, are Amey’s asset management teams on its Civil Examination Framework Agreement (CEFA) with Network Rail. They are on the railway in all weather and conditions, inspecting and reviewing every asset to a regular schedule.

Killiecrankie tunnel south portal – Highland line.

The Earthworks Team, for example, focusses on assessing Network Rail’s portfolio of embankments, soil cuttings and rock cuttings. Some of these are over 150 years old and can be susceptible to extreme damage caused by adverse weather, such as prolonged periods of wet weather, when landslips can happen.

The tragic recent accident near Stonehaven in Scotland brought home to everyone just how important it is to keep a watchful eye on the railway’s earthworks, although it is impossible to cover everything and the particular embankment involved in that incident was not classified as being at risk.

Gary Cowen is one of Amey’s earthworks route managers. He explained the magnitude of his task, and how he goes about it.

Gary Cowen, Amey.

“My team and I look after approximately 2,800 kilometres of railway, or over 57,000 earthwork assets, across Scotland,” he said. “The days are varied, from spending time with our client, Network Rail, reviewing what the network needs, reporting back remedial work to being out and about on the track getting my PPE dirty.

“I’ve been with Amey since 2002 and I’m still impressed every day at the expertise of the people around me. My team varies between four and seven examiners at any one time. Our diverse skill set – from civil engineers to doctorates – encourages creative problem-solving and helps us challenge each other. It’s a really dynamic environment to work within.

“The most unusual element of my role is the varied hours I work, which no-one ever sees or knows about. From working throughout the Christmas period, to leaving the house at midnight and returning at 5am – assessing earthworks can happen literally at any time of the day or night. My neighbours are none the wiser and see me as the person that works from home – little do they know!”

Tulloch Station on the West Highland line in winter.

Gary’s team is adept at being flexible, especially in response to extreme weather incidents. During 2019/20, the earthworks team attended over 500 call-outs on the Scotland route, include bridge strikes, embankment and slope failures, and overtopping and flooding around coastal routes caused by adverse weather.

The work never stops, and Gary prides himself on the ability of his team to respond 24/7, 365 days a year. All calls are handled by a dedicated call centre and route-specific on-call duty manager.

Once deployed on a call-out, accurate and detailed reports that risk-rate any defects are submitted to Network Rail, ensuring that lines can safely reopen as quickly as possible, to minimise disruption.

Pass of Brander, Oban line.

“I enjoy the constant challenge posed by my role and the rail network,” Gary continued. “I started my career working on the highways for Midlothian Council and was fortunate to meet a great colleague and manager who supported my career ambitions to move into an engineering role.

“I truly believe you should do the simple things well, bring the right attitude to work and take a chance every now and again. 

“Most of all I enjoy the incredible scenery Scotland boasts. Railway assets are not always in tourist hotspots, so I’m lucky to be able to see some of its hardest to reach, most peaceful, beautiful places!”  


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