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Feats of engineering

Eight times we took engineering to the next level

We face lots of challenges in keeping the railway running safely and reliably for you and freight operators. Here are eight examples of when we used some of the best technology, ingenuity and innovative engineering in Britain to keep you moving.

Jacked up

We worked to develop an innovative new jacking system to help restore Barmouth Viaduct. Our Grade II listed viaduct spans 860 metres over the Afon Mawddach estuary, North Wales, and is the oldest and longest timber viaduct still in use today.  

Our job was to restore this historic engineering marvel on a like-for-like basis. The viaduct is a vital link on the Cambrian Line, carrying trains and pedestrians over the estuary. It’s exposed to coastal elements and suffered from decay and corrosion on its timber and metallic components.

Our teams had to replace 24 crossheads, which required us to lift the bridge off its timber beams. That’s why we developed a jacking system with Alun Griffiths and Cass Hayward.

Our innovative system involved a combination of steel supports and jacks, which are built off-site and then transported into position. The system meant we could carry out the work on crossheads and support beams without having to strip the track and deck structures. The result? A safer and more efficient process to get you travelling over the bridge again sooner. We expect to finish the restoration of Barmouth Viaduct next year.

Pinpoint accuracy

We’ve used drone and laser scanning technology to help with maintenance of our structures. Our teams used light detection and ranging (LIDAR) to map every inch of the iconic 176-year-old Whalley railway viaduct in Lancashire.  

Our drones took 300 scans of the 48-arch viaduct which carried the Blackburn to Clitheroe railway line 550 metres across the Ribble Valley. The lasers from the drones travel to the ground and reflect off the viaduct back to the LIDAR sensor on the drone where it’s recorded.  

We then used the scans to create a 3D computer model, creating a digital blueprint of the viaduct’s current condition. The model will help engineers closely monitor any changes in the structure and identify problems within the Victorian brickwork. Using this technology is also safer for our teams because there’s no need for rope teams and working from height.  

Laser illumination

We’ve also used LIDAR to assist with track maintenance. We partnered with Fugro, a geo-data specialist, which has used LIDAR to successfully take images of track.  

The high-quality images of thousands of track miles are captured by a train mounted RILA camera and sensor. Fugro’s sensor and camera capture the data and images to detect any faults on the railway before they lead to delays and disruptions.

The technology has allowed us to keep the railway open while we carry out our survey thanks to the train mounted RILA. Our survey has already captured 97% of our Western route from London Paddington to Penzance and has given levels of accuracy we’ve never seen before.

Heavy lifting

We completed a huge railway junction repair in record time on the Chiltern Main Line. We achieved this after finding a major fault on this of section track, in November 2020.

The fault had the potential to cause major disruption as the junction connects the Chiltern Main Line with a branch line between Banbury and Oxford. Both lines are heavily used by passenger and freight services.

We fixed the fault in less than 12 hours thanks to some ingenuity and collaboration with the wider rail industry. Our teams used two of the largest rail cranes in Europe, the Kirow crane, to lift a six-and-a-half-tonne section of replacement track into place. This has been dubbed our ‘formula one pit-stop repair’ because of the incredibly speed it took to complete. You can expect more reliable journeys on the Chiltern Main Line thanks to this innovative junction repair.

Phenomenal freight

We ran the heaviest freight train ever to travel on the West Coast Main Line from the Peak District to London, in March 2021. The ‘jumbo service’ hauled 3,600 tonnes of essential construction materials 203 miles.

Jumbo freight service on West Coast Main Line

The 39-wagon freight train measured a total length of 590 metres and split into two upon its arrival into London.

Our ‘jumbo service’ experiment demonstrated how longer freight services can benefit the environment by taking lorries off the road and reducing congestion.

Down in one

Our teams successfully installed nearly half a kilometre of track in one go between Birmingham New Street and Coleshill Park Way, in February 2022.

We connected six specialist railway track removal machines together to complete the lift and installation. Our engineers used new four-dimensional modelling to simulate the installation in advance to improve efficiency.

We delivered an extensive package of improvements works in just under nine days so to improve your journeys in and out of Birmingham New Street.

Changing tides

We started work on the second section of the new, bigger sea wall at Dawlish, Devon in November 2020. Our bigger wall needed bigger equipment to deliver it.

We used an innovative eight-legged, self-contained walker jack-up-barge, known as a WaveWalker to help with construction. This barge is the only one of its kind in Europe and had never been used on a railway in Britain before Dawlish.

Our teams were able to safely access the sea face of the railway embankment to complete foundation because of the WaveWalker; this incredible machine benefits from being able to operate across the high tidal range. Your journeys will be better protected once section two of the new sea wall is complete.

Rising to the challenge

We rose to the challenge and lifted the 80-tonne Black Bridge out of a flood zone in North Wales, June 2021.

The bridge has closed 30 times in the last decade due to flooding. A total of 360 of our engineers clocked up more than 32,000 working hours to lift the bridge in just six weeks; they opted to lift the bridge manually, rather than use hydraulics to prevent any twists or inaccuracies.

Our engineers used eight 20-tonne chains blocks to raise the bridge; for every 10 meters of chain pulled, the bridge was raised just 10mm. They pulled 12,800 metres of chain by hand to raise the bridge a whole metre. Your journeys in North Wales will be more reliable as this bridge is now better protected from heavy rain and rising river levels.

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