Spate of bridge strikes leads to warning over risk of ‘catastrophic accident’ on UK railways

Network Rail chair Sir Peter Hendy has warned of the possibility of a “catastrophic accident” on the UK’s rail network, following a spate of bridge strikes in recent days. Hendy’s warning comes after a number of recent rail bridge strikes across the country, which have highlighted the scale of the challenge posed to Network Rail. On Tuesday (31 August) alone, there were nine collisions.

Bridges were hit in Romsey, Luton, Marston East, Earley, Ulverston, Redhill, Coton, Darlington and Cadwell. In Romsey, Network Rail said that trains were unable to run “for a short time” while engineers checked the bridge between Redbridge and Romsey stations after it was hit by a lorry. No damage was found but Network Rail emphasised that drivers should “always know the height and width restrictions of their vehicle before passing under a railway bridge”.

Tuesday’s incidents followed a separate bridge strike in Plymouth on Monday where a bridge was hit by a Tesco lorry. This led to trains being stopped on the line between western Devon, Cornwall and the rest of the UK. The lorry was removed on Tuesday afternoon, but Network Rail said “huge cracks have developed” after the crash and disruption is expected until the weekend.

?We’re sorry if you’ve been affected by train disruption in the south west today.

?Here’s a quick video showing how we got here… ?…And how we’ll get trains services running again now the lorry has been removed.@GWRHelp @CrossCountryUK @nationalrailenq @BBCTravelSW pic.twitter.com/AFZyytJqvE — Network Rail Western (@networkrailwest) August 31, 2021

Meanwhile, roads and rail services in Mid Wales were disrupted on Wednesday morning after a tipper truck struck a railway bridge.

The accident closed the A487 on the outskirts of Machynlleth, forcing buses to amend routes and motorists to make long diversions. Rail services were also disrupted whilst specialist engineers inspected the bridge for damage. Network Rail chair Sir Peter Hendy told NCE that bridge strikes could lead to a “catastrophic” accident on the nation’s railways.

“A lorry or bus hitting a railway bridge isn’t an accident,” he said. “It’s a failure of professional operators and drivers to properly plan their routes and know the height of their vehicles, and can cause fatalities and serious injuries for road users, delays for both road and rail travellers, and could cause a catastrophic railway accident.” According to Hendy, Network Rail has “done a lot of work” with its transport partners to tackle the problem – through education, engineering, enablement and enforcement – but “more can and needs to be done”. He added: “Network Rail looks to recover the entire cost of such incidents from operators and drivers, and also reports all of them to the Traffic Commissioners for consideration of enforcement and licence revocation.”

RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding said the number of bridge strikes “has remained stubbornly high for the past couple of decades”, at around 1,700 to 2,000 per year. “While responsibility must ultimately fall on drivers, companies also have a duty to ensure those using their vehicles – especially lorries and buses – are adequately prepared for the type of trips they will be making and the hazards they will be encountering,” he said. “Aside from the risk to health and the inevitable congestion and delays, there is a financial bill to be paid which in most cases will be settled by the taxpayer or all drivers through their insurance premiums.”

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