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Geotechnical asset management: Engineering a new approach for rail

GE recently partnered with Aecom to deliver a roundtable discussion on geotechnical asset management in the rail sector, focusing on the challenges facing the industry and key routes for improvement

The UK’s rail network is a unique combination of assets ranging from Victorian age structures through to modern design, offering a range of equally unique and complex challenges in terms of extending service life, minimising costs and maintaining availability.

Aecom round table - David Hutchinson, Network Rail with Ian Shelley, Aecom

David Hutchinson, Network Rail with Ian Shelley, Aecom

GE and Aecom invited a selection of industry specialists to debate best practice, learn from previous mistakes and identify the necessary solutions to improve geotechnical asset management. The discussion opened with a look at the main geotechnical challenges faced by rail asset owners and how these affect the approach to managing trackbed, earthworks and drainage.

A recurring concern was the issue of capturing quality asset data and ensuring it is used effectively. Julian Harms, route asset manager (drainage and off-track), Network Rail, LNW Route believes that asset data is not yet being used effectively for the full benefit of the whole system. Harms believes more needs to be done to analyse the benefits of improving drainage, for example, to help inform wider maintenance decisions. “Why do we renew the track and then put the drainage in afterwards? ” he asks.

“Obviously, we should put the drainage in first, see what benefit it brings and then renew the track if necessary. We have a lot of historical behaviours that are counterintuitive. The problem is we are poor at capturing the data which shows the benefit of getting the drainage right. It all comes back to what data we capture and how we use it.

“We do capture lots of data but we don’t currently use it as effectively as we should. There is a lot of development going on in Network Rail data management and we can expect to see this situation improve over the next two to three years.”

Matthew Brough, director, transportation asset management, Aecom, revealed that the history of how the asset has been managed is often lacking or fragmented within organisations. “In order to make informed decisions regarding geotechnical asset maintenance and renewal strategies, the performance of historic interventions needs to be understood,” says Brough.

“The Civils Strategic Asset Management Solution (CSAMS) will be an enabler to allow us to manage our data, both structured and unstructured, better than we currently do”
Simon Abbott, Network Rail

However, Simon Abbott, professional head (geotechnics) at Network Rail revealed that work is underway to try and remove this problem. Part of this development at Network Rail involves a new £35M IT project, which will be a key tool in improving current asset management practices. “The Civils Strategic Asset Management Solution (CSAMS) will be an enabler to allow us to manage our data, both structured and unstructured, better than we currently do,” explains Abbott. “[CSAMS] will be coming online later this year and then rolled out early 2016 for geotech and structures later on in 2016.”

Aecom round table - Simon Abbott, Network Rail

Simon Abbott, Network Rail

Network Rail has also developed the Linear Asset Decision Support (LADS) tool that allows asset managers to relate the locations of previous track work to potential and actual slope failure sites. However, David Hutchinson, route asset manager (geotechnics) at Network Rail, admits the quality of the assessment relies on having accurate data in LADS. “Now that we have a tool to use that data, it will drive our teams to more accurately record it,” he says.

John Holden, director, ground engineering and mining, Aecom, has also seen the impact of poor asset data records during remedial projects but says that he is encouraged by progress from both Network Rail and London Underground. He says: “Historically we have all experienced problems and extra costs due to gaps in information about assets, including work previously undertaken, monitoring data and site investigation reports.

“I am pleased to see the commitment of both Network Rail and London Underground to establishing processes and systems to improve data capture, storage and retrieval. Their challenge in future will be maintaining adherence to the processes they have established.”

Brough agrees there has been progress across the industry: “Rail asset owners’ approach to collecting asset condition and performance data has improved immensely across many diff erent asset groups. The next important step is to use that asset specific data in a meaningful and intelligent way so you can optimise future decision making about the entire rail system.”

While the tools to improve asset management data are being put in place, the discussions also looked at how best this information can be used to improve risk assessment and planning of remedial work.

Risk assessment

While risk assessment methods are valuable, Nader Saffari, head of geotechnics at London Underground, raises a caution with regards to the way these tools are used. “We keep emphasising in my organisation that risk assessment software is a tool for engineers to make engineering decisions and judgements, not the other way around,” he says. “So basically, when you look at the results of a risk assessment, you’ve got the risk values but you don’t make a decision solely based on that value alone. You look at all of the information available to you and decide if that value is correct and where you are going to spend your money.”

“There’ll often be a little pearl of an idea and that might come from the guy that has been driving the machine for about 40 years”

Jamie Walker, Story Contracting 

Focusing on a more holistic approach when analysing information and decision making in order to improve effiencies was a recurring theme throughout the event. Richard Garland, regional manager at Bam Ritchies, suggests a key part of improving efficiency involves early contractor engagement, particularly involvement from specialist contractors. “The current design approvals process, coupled with the procurement process often makes it very difficult to get genuine early specialist contractor involvement. We can come up with novel solutions and means of access because that’s what we do, our business is based on finding ways to do things more efficiently,” he says.

“However, often by the time we get involved a lot of what we could have brought to it is too late because the design has already been approved, possessions arranged and the delays associated with revisiting the design are unacceptable.”

Jamie Walker, Story Contracting

Jamie Walker, Story Contracting

Providing additional insight from a contractor’s perspective, Jamie Walker, engineering manager at Story contracting, believes it is essential to tap into the pool of knowledge and expertise held by the construction workers who are out on site. “There’s a feeling that all good ideas are going to come from chartered engineers, from people that are university graduates, but for every 10 things that come from what we call the ‘daft ideas box’, there’ll often be a little pearl of an idea and that might come from the guy that has been driving the machine for about 40 years,” says Walker.

“They’re the people you need to tap into about how to get onto the network to do the work efficiently because that’s what’s going to save you money and allow you to do more of this blanket asset management, where you can treat a number of assets, effectively maintaining them over a period of time and allowing you to ward off potential failures.”

Looking ahead

Ultimately, there needs to be a step change to overhaul outdated behaviours and the often fragmented approach to asset management. A more integrated approach will involve looking at the system as a whole and making informed decisions that benefit the entire network.

“We have to think of system engineering – what I mean by that is understanding how the train, the track and the earthworks underneath interact together,” says Niall Fagan head of track engineering at HS2. “Initially, if there’s something wrong it’s the train that finds it. The train responds to what’s happening underneath, either the track or the earthworks but what’s happening? Is it a track fault or something more deep-seated underneath? We have got to look at the whole system in terms of how it works.

“Ultimately, if you only look at one aspect you have a narrow focus.”


Leaving a legacy

Aecom round table - Derek Butcher, Network Rail (left) with Niall Fagan, HS2

Derek Butcher, Network Rail (left) with Niall Fagan, HS2

Network Rail is taking a proactive approach to improve the systems and tools used to manage its assets, but there is a key concern regarding the staff required to implement and maintain these processes.

“It’s really a question of legacy,” comments Derek Butcher, route asset manager (geotechnics), Network Rail. “We’re talking about people moving on, recruiting new staff and knowledge. We’re just not set up at the moment to capture information/data and use it for our benefit or to leave a legacy.”

Butcher revealed that staffing resource has become a significant challenge, including recruitment for more senior roles. “I’ve just had to recruit someone as I had quite a senior engineer leave,” he explains. “There was a dearth of responses to the advert.

“The response I had back was very poor. We’re struggling with quality agency staff for the short term as well as well-trained permanent staff.”

At the other end of the career scale, Network Rail’s pipeline for the next generation of engineers is through its graduate training scheme. As a fairly new recruit at the company, geotechnical asset engineer Eleanor Walters has a good understanding of what is attractive to recent graduates. During her final year project at university, Walters had the opportunity to engage with Network Rail on the embankment stabilisation of the railway on the Newcastle to Carlisle line.

“I was liaising with asset managers on the project so I got their views on the site, also the background and history behind it, which fed into the information I was gathering. I made contacts through that which made me apply for Network Rail,” says Walters. “I don’t think I would have thought of Network Rail as a company to apply for without having worked on that project. Early engagement is really important – having those links which allow you to bring to life what you are learning.”

Early engagement with students is encouraged by William Powrie, professor of geotechnical engineering at Southampton University, who has been involved with setting up a civil engineering scholarship scheme through the university which has seen a range of consultants and companies engage with students.

“We have had students join Network Rail and often it is due to involvement during the student’s university experience, for example co-supervising a third-year student with a design project, vacation placements or possibly providing a bursary. That’s the sort of thing that gets a student interested in a particular employer or a particular branch of engineering,” explains Powrie.

While ground engineering in the context of asset management might not initially be at the forefront of graduates’ minds when considering career options, engaging with students and providing practical experience for young engineers is critical to ensuring a healthy pipeline for the industry.

Ian Shelley, associate geotechnical engineer at Aecom, adds: “People don’t really understand what geotechnical engineering is until they start doing it. I’ve never had a graduate come into our geotechnics team and then want to leave to go into structures, general civils or any other team. I think the challenge is to get them in early and then they won’t want to leave.”

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