Each year, we find about 100 broken rails across the network that we need to fix.
What happens when rail breaks?
Rail can break because of a small defect in a rail which can get bigger with repeated bending from rail traffic or too much overloading. It’s like a wire coat hanger that is bent too much – the wire becomes weak and can snap.
When we find broken rail, we investigate to see why it happened and review how we could change our processes to prevent it from happening again. Our engineers continually work to prevent problems but breakages will still happen from time to time in a network of more than 20,000 miles of track.
What do we do when we find a broken rail?
In simple cases, we can clamp a broken rail temporarily and slow down trains until our engineers can come to fix the problem completely. We can easily and quickly fetch a replacement piece for straight or plain track because we keep a certain amount of spare rails and components in stock for repairs.
If the break is too big or we can't clamp it, we must close the line until we can replace the rail. If the break is at junctions or switches and crossings, the repair work takes longer as the replacement part has to specially made. It’s also harder to fix in certain places like tunnels.
Sometimes, we’ll have to close neighbouring lines too. This is to enable the engineering teams to work safely.
Investing in technology to reduce the number of breaks
We’ve already managed to reduce the number of broken rails from a peak of 900 down to about 100 breaks a year. However, our engineers continue to work on new ways to prevent and monitor track defects. For example, we’re upgrading the technology we use to monitor the condition of our track.
One of the ways we look for broken track is to ultrasonically test the rails. To do this we use trains fitted with complex test equipment. This equipment emits high-frequency sound into the rail at different angles to look for small cracks inside.
We’ve also increased our capacity to monitor, inspect and fix track faults using Plain Line Pattern Recognition Technology (PLPR) in combination with track geometry measurement. This technology analyses high definition imagery of the rails, fastenings, sleepers and ballast.
Future track development plans
We’re working towards standardising the railway even more to make it easier to carry out repairs in future instead of having to make bespoke parts.
New technology such as 3D printing means we could potentially make replacement parts as and when we need them, reducing storage costs and up-front manufacturing costs, too.
In the meantime, we’re continuing to work on carrying out repairs as quickly and as safely as we can.