When Christmas Blockades Go Wrong

December 10, 2019
When Christmas Blockades Go Wrong

A History Of Critical Blockades

Each year the rail network faces closures over the Christmas period as thousands take to the tracks for engineering work. Resource is at a premium and a massive amount of money is spent in a short amount of time, as Network Rail and its contractors take advantage of the quieter bank holidays and lack of commuters.

However, these blockades have historically been plagued by issues. Engineering overruns and problems have caused a domino effect and caused significant impact across the network as travelers return to the rail. Many of those who suffer from unplanned disruption are inexperienced travelers venturing out to visit relatives, or young families travelling with children.

So What Has Gone Wrong?

In 2008, 3 significant engineering overruns caused disruption across the UK network. The ORR’s investigation into the event concluded that there were systemic weaknesses in Network Rail’s planning processes. In particular, they highlighted risk management, site management and communications. As a result, an order was imposed requiring Network Rail to carry out an improvement plan.

At that stage Network Rail’s improvements were approved and they seemed to have turned a corner. In 2013 they deftly maneuvered stormy conditions to delivery works with minimal disruption.

However, in 2014, the big problems started. Network Rail planned a record-breaking £200 million investment programme between Christmas Eve and the New Year. More than 11,000 engineers were working on the blockade with most of the work scheduled to be completed on Christmas and Boxing Day. Network Rail expected that 90% of their services would continue to run as normal.

Scaffolding and packades during this season, Source: New Civil Engineer

On 27th December, however, everything fell apart. Two of Britain’s busiest stations, King’s Cross and London Paddington, were forced to close for most of the day due to overrunning works and signalling problems. Tens of thousands of travellers were stranded, many of them forced to wait in freezing temperatures for hours.

The extraordinary day of chaos spurred a lot of backlash. Network Rail faced multi-million-pound fines and operators were criticised for their lack of communication with passengers. The ORR immediately launched an investigation into the event.

The ORR Review

The ORR investigation concluded that there were a number of factors contributing to the 2014 failure:

  • Contingency planning was not fit for purpose.
  • Failure to procure accurate and timely information during the disruption.
  • Failure to properly communicate train movements and changes to operators.
  • Poor incident response.

One of the main 3 recommendations made in the report was improved oversight of possessions and communications. Specifically, they set out requirements for the following:

  • To understand in real-time how the risks of possession overruns have changed and communicate this upwardly and externally to train operators.
  • To review the processes for site reporting including consideration for management of contractors.
  • To ensure there are clear go/no go decision points throughout the works.

It’s clear that fragmented messaging over paper notes, email and phone calls are ineffective for managing critical blockades, particularly as these schemes grow in ambition. Projects are planned by the hour and information needs to be available in real-time to manage overruns and communicate situation updates to major stakeholders. A dedicated reporting platform means that your project data is visible in real-time, to everyone who needs it, and you can easily trace back context, conditions and events.

Without that capability projects quickly become fragmented. Field teams, offices and operators work in silos and without the most up-to-date information. It’s a problem that many of our clients here at Raildiary have experienced and, that spurred them to find a solution. Our own Founder conceptualised the Raildiary platform following a string of bad experiences with site reporting. Digital reporting can be used to manage labour, plant, material deliveries and any other aspect of a project; with analytics to help identify problems and predict future outputs.

Will Doyle


I am an experienced RICS chartered Quantity Surveyor​ with first-hand experience of how the consistent capture and analysis of data can transform global project delivery.

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