March 02, 2004

How did they do rail maintenance in the past?

Patrick Crozier | Maintenance Contractors

Jonathan Elias, who is writing a dissertation on, er, something to do with railways (I guess) e-mailed me to ask how rail maintenance was done in the past. I e-mailed him back to ask him to clarify things a bit. This is how he replied:

I think what i mostly mean is whether the maintenance was done "in-house" by BR as is supposedly done by Network Rail now, or whether there was the situation of companies fighting for contracts. While I acknowledge that this must have gone on to a certain extent-major projects etc., I wonder if the situation was as messed up as it appears to have been under Railtrack who apparently didn't have a R+D department which surely isn't right. I'm quite keen to learn how maintenance was handled even prior to nationalisation in the 40's. I assume that the big 4 maintained enormous engineering resources which accounted for them being some of the biggest companies around at that time. I suppose the main reason i have trouble with this was that i grew up in germany where the trains seem to work as a relatively privatised thing, perhaps britain's system is a case of too many cooks...

Right, well I'll have a go at answering some of this from off the top of my head. As I understand it BR did all its own maintenance. As I understand it Network Rail does not yet do anything in-house unless it has already taken over the West London stretch. BR's R&D Department was indeed sold off before Railtrack even came into existence. Likewise Railtrack never got the chance to negotiate its own contracts, at least, not until a lot later c.2000.

I know very little about how maintenance was done in the past. Two snippets. There were men called "linemen" who were responsible for their own stretch of the permanent way (about a mile or so). They even had their own little huts. There were annual competitions for the best stretch of permanent way.

To the best of my knowledge Germany has never had a privatised railway.

Again all of this is on an "as I understand it" basis.

For what it is worth, although the old practices seem to have worked well, I doubt if they would work well today. They are appallingly labour intensive ie expensive. Just as much (in theory) can be achieved by regular automatic track recording and the use of machines. That's how the Japanese do it.

Anyone out there (Mark Ellot, Brian Hayes, I'm thinking of you) who can help?

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I'm not entirely sure about pre-nationalisation, but I believe the big four had their own in-house maintenance gangs.

BR did all its maintenace in-house using the premanant way department for track and S&T for signalling equipment, which included points and switches. So, technically a job could include both engineering and signalling.

Patrolmen always had their own section of track that they regularly patrolled to check for defects and the maintenance gang would come out and fix these during a possession (sometimes this would involve an emergency possession). This still goes on.

Relaying was carried out by the P-Way engineering department. Interestingly, as a signalman at the time, I became involved with handsignalling, point winding etc., to make life easier for them when moving engineering trains about.

Following privatisation, Railtrack had engineers in the heavy engineering and signalling disciplines - they were responsible for major projects, relaying jobs and structures (maintenance and renewal). These people managed the process. The work was carried out by contractors such as Jarvis, Balfour Beatty and Amey. These companies also bought up the maintenance teams, including the signalling engineers. In the early days immediately following privatisation until they were bought by commercial companies they were psuedo companies that operated as if they were a commercial organisation but not yet privately owned. If I recall correctly this went on for about a year.

Network Rail took back the Reading mantenance contract last year from Amey. It has recently taken back one in the midlands from BBRM - I'm not too sure how things are progressing at the moment though. The plan is to take the lot back. This is a mixed blessing - not least because engineering supervisors do not necessarily see being TUPEd into Network Rail as a good career move. The alternative is to refuse, then sell their services as a consultant/contractor at a suitably inflated rate ;-)

Posted by Mark Ellott on March 3, 2004

BTW - nearly forgot....

Automatic track testing does happen as does mechanical maintenance. The stoneblowers are effective at doing what gangs used to do by hand. When they work.

Posted by Mark Ellott on March 3, 2004

The Dissertation is titled "Railway Maintenance and the Effect on Operations"

On the issue of germany and privatisation, it is only really on local routes with DB holding 90% of the market.

Posted by Jonathan Elias on March 3, 2004

Mark

Thanks for that. Next question: how good was it? Was it better than what followed (I'm kind of assuming "yes")? In what ways do you think it could have been better?

Posted by Patrick Crozier on March 3, 2004

Not necessarily "better" if you mean quality - materials and techniques have improved as has technology. As I said, the stoneblower is a good bit of kit (better than traditional tampers) as it replaces the ballast under the sleepers rather than scrunching up what is there. Also some of the modern track recorders are highly sophisticated and effective - that degree of technology just wasn't there during BR days. Mind you, there's a lot to be said for walking the track and looking at it...

What we lost, though, was the seamless co-operation. Overnight we became separate companies trying to avoid blame in the event of overruns. Now, these always happened, but the blame culture (compensation and penalty payments) wasn't there. As a signalman, I was actively involved in possessions and signalling maintenance tasks. Should anything go wrong, I was on hand to minimise any operational impact. Okay, so most of the time I didn't do a great deal - I was insurance. Insurance that today would be regarded as wasteful. However, a few minutes' delay avioded or reduced would compensate for that. Because the tasks involve outside contractors, this doesn't happen today and I believe is something we lost.

If the industry had been vertically split, some of the labour intensive and wasteful practices would still have gone, but the integration and co-operation between departments and their benefits would have remained.

Not a straightforward answer, I'm afraid - but I don't think the question was asking for one ;-)

Posted by Mark Ellott on March 4, 2004

Mark Elliot has replied in a simple, concise manner. Mark, if you were a signalman, your safety and regulation role was essentital. There may have been times when you felt not too stretched, but never underestimate your important and essential role. It is when the position disappears, the true worth is sometimes known, but very difficult to quantify in respect of cost. In that, however, I shall need to convince Patrick!
In railway terminology, the lenghtman was always referred to as a 'GANGER'. He would walk his lenght every day, ensuring that all keys were firm in the chairs, no cracks in the rail and thi line was in good condition. This resulted in any debris or litter being immediately removed and buried; equally weeds would be removed from the 4 or 6 foot, an dvegetation kept under control at the lineside. 4' is between the rails: 6' outside the rails.
Any further detail, I am sure can be answered by Mark or myself.

Posted by Brian Hayes on March 6, 2004

"It is when the position disappears, the true worth is sometimes known, but very difficult to quantify in respect of cost. In that, however, I shall need to convince Patrick!"

I am not quite sure what you intend to convince me of here, Brian, the need for signalmen or the idea that there are things out there that a) seem expensive and b) whose value is difficult to determine and c) which ought to be kept.

For the record, I have no problem with the second idea. Privatisation and the free market is not necessarily about an orgy of cost-cutting and turning everything into a profit centre.

I think the private sector is (usually) pretty good at evaluating those hard-to-measure things. After all, who was it who introduced lengthmen in the first place if it wasn't private railway companies?

I also think there are plenty of examples of the private sector spending over the odds to get the right result. The Great Western Railway springs to mind. As indeed does Southern mainline electrification which I think compares rather well with the electrification under BR of the East Coast mainline.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on March 6, 2004

I think b). There were other intangible benefits that are hard to put a value to. As a reliefman, I regularly worked outside, alongside the local P-Way and Signalling technicians and we developed a good working relationship. This paid off when I was operating the signalling panel. I trusted the people who asked for a short block to carry out repair work. I also had a mental picture of where they were, what they were doing and how long they were likely to take.

My sister (still a signaller) knows only disembodied voices and feels that there is something lacking. How do you put a value on those relationships?

Posted by Mark Ellott on March 6, 2004

Ah, one of those times when Staying Put is not such a good idea.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on March 7, 2004

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