East Coast Main Line at Holloway – an hour by hour descent into trouble

Network Rail explained in detail in its report as to what happened at the Holloway site on the East Coast Main Line over Christmas and Boxing Day which prevented Kings Cross station being able to open to passengers on 27 December.

Here's what they said:

"The works were at Holloway Junction  approximately 1.6km north of King’s Cross Station where four railway lines at Holloway interconnected by four junctions to allow trains to pass from one line to another.  Two of these junctions (Site A and B) and 500m of the two railway lines between them were being replaced over Christmas 2014 in a £4m project. The other two railway lines were needed for the large engineering (freight) trains which supported the work (fig 2). The two junctions), the 500m of railway line and around 6,000 tonnes of old ballast had to be removed and transported away. 

The huge amount of construction activity over Christmas (across the whole network) required the support of over 200 engineering trains. This demand exhausted the national supply of freight train drivers

Around 6,000 tonnes of new ballast then had to be installed and levelled and eighty-two pre-assembled track panels laid on top like jigsaw pieces. Some 180 welds were then required to join everything together followed by alignment checks on the 25,000 volt overhead cables. In total about 8,000 hours of work was undertaken by the “Northern S&C Alliance”. S&C stands for switches and crossings, commonly known as points and crossings. The Northern S&C Alliance is one of two contractual alliances recently set up by Network Rail and comprises Network Rail and Amey Rail,  the contractual obligations of Amey Rail being discharged by the AmeySersa Joint Venture.

The Alliance was set up in July 2014 as a ten year design and build contract with built in efficiency targets. The contract has risk/reward mechanisms to incentivise performance and the continuous improvement necessary to achieve the 2014-2019 Control Period 5 (CP5) financial targets. 

According to the Network Rail approximately one hour was lost during the process of isolating the 25,000 volt overhead lines and then issuing the required permits to work before the site work could start. 

Because all of the projects on the route started at approximately the same time, there was a known bottleneck in the issue of permits to work. A pre-agreed prioritisation of worksites was in place and Holloway was second in the prioritised isolation plan.

Approximately three hours were then lost during the process of “scrapping out” where the 500m of old track and sleepers were flame cut, dismantled and loaded onto engineering trains marshalled on the adjacent track. There were a number of reasons why time was lost, including some due to machine operator experience, but the primary reason was that the fittings between the Road Rail Vehicles and brand new log grabs (used to remove the scrap rail) kept leaking hydraulic fluid, losing pressure and not working correctly. The on-site fitter was constantly working to fix these problems and delays mounted. 

The plant supplier had provided new log grabs to specifically reduce the delivery risk. However, the unintended consequence was to introduce a delivery risk because the grabs had never been operated with these specific RRVs. The issue of the leaking fittings is under separate review. In addition, one of the seven RRVs was disabled by a fault for three hours 35 minutes. The repair was beyond the capability of the on-site fitter so an off-site specialist was called to site.

At the end of scrapping out, at approximately 09:00 on Christmas Day, the four hours lost less the 45 minutes of contingency built in the final plan up to this point, meant that the project was now thre hours 15 minutes behind plan. 

The project had now reached the “point of no return”when a key decision had to be taken as to how deep to excavate the ballast. The contingency plan allowed for the project to be up to four hours behind at this point and to still deliver the full 300mm deep ballast excavation (around 6,000 tonnes of stone). As the project was less than four hours behind the plan, the decision was rightly made by those on site to progress with the full dig. Though most of the contingency had been used up, the site team believed that time could be made up later and they did not declare an overrun.

Once the decision had been taken on the depth of the excavation, it had to be completed to that depth along the entire length of the track otherwise it could introduce serious track quality issues with a potential risk of train derailment when the infrastructure was returned to use. 

The rapid loss of time should have been escalated during the night but the on-site staff became focused on dealing with the problems 

Shortly after the decision was made to proceed to the excavation phase however, two engineering trains, which were loaded with scrap rails and sleepers, were due to leave site. Some of the scrap was not correctly positioned to safely travel on the open railway and had to be adjusted. By the time that this was completed, the drivers of these trains had reached the end of the limit for the length of a shift and were unable to take the trains to New Barnet, approximately 11km  away. 

This seemingly minor issue proved to be the catalyst for a major issue, though this did not materialise for for a further 12 hours. 

The drivers of two of the spoil wagon trains (used to transport the old ballast) were cascaded forward to drive the scrap trains away. Moving drivers from one train to another is not unusual; however, the engineering trains were spread out over the 14.5km worksite so time was lost with each driver move. 

The site was now two train drivers short and continuing to gradually lose time. By 14:00 on Christmas Day, the project was approximately six hours behind the plan. The programme delay had been escalated to senior Network Rail, Amey and Alliance staff and they were now fully engaged. In the evening of Christmas Day, it was still felt that the Saturday hand back of two railway lines was possible, although tight, because of the contingencies built into Boxing Day. 

Howeverthe project had been cascading train drivers throughout the day and, shortly after midnight, the supply of new drivers to support this cascade, ran out. There was one remaining driver and five engineering trains still on-site and this was the point at which the project started to rapidly lose time. Whilst all the drivers involved were cooperative and committed to completing the project, they reached their maximum shift duration limits, which for safety reasons cannot be exceeded. 

The huge amount of construction activity over Christmas (across the whole network) required the support of over 200 engineering trains. This demand exhausted the national supply of freight train drivers and some planned work had already been cancelled in the run up to Christmas because it could not be supported by train crew. 

The train plan for each worksite was carefully constructed but, due to the constraints of driver hours and shift patterns, could only cope with a finite amount of project delay. After this point, the work activities and the engineering trains to support them become out of sync and this is what happened at Holloway during the early hours of Boxing Day. 

With only one driver and five trains spread out over the length of the site, progress on site slowed to a crawl as trains were in the wrong place to support the planned pace of work. 

This was compounded by the mechanical failure of one of the ballast wagons which failed in such a way that it could not be moved for a number of hours. 

The rapid loss of time should have been escalated during the night but the on-site staff became focused on dealing with the problems and their communications to the IP Tactical Control in Peterborough and the LNE Route Control in York became less clear and timely. 

In the morning of Boxing Day, senior Network Rail, Amey and Alliance staff sought to identify a solution but, by 11:00, the project was around 15 hours behind the original plan. Network Rail IP Tactical Control and LNE Route Control were made aware that an overrun would occur on Saturday 27 December. The overrun was also escalated to Network Rail’s managing director infrastructure projects Francis Paonessa and chief executive Mark Carne. 

By 13:00 on Boxing Day, a revised plan had been put together which showed that the railway could not be safely handed back until Saturday night. This was after the time when any passenger trains were planned to be operating so a 24 hour overrun was therefore declared. This revised plan had two lines being opened for passenger service on Sunday 28 December at 05:30 and all four lines as originally planned at 05:30 on Monday morning."

Other issues that emerged in the report were:

Closure of the four tracks on the East Coast Main Line would have been more efficient, but two had to remain open because the West Coast Main Line was closed at Watford for Christmas engineering works and it was not an option to have two of the routes to Scotland closed for the holiday period. 

Working on multiple sites on the East Coast Main Line meant that the engineering trains for the Holloway works had to be delivered early and parked up on 14.5km miles of the tracks taken out of commission for the works effectively closing off the option of reopening those tracks should work overrun.

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