The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has announced £4.8M funding for research into better monitoring and maintenance of long linear infrastructure.
The programme, which will be led by Newcastle University, will look at road and railway slopes, pipeline bedding and flood protection structures to understand how to make them more resilient for the future.
EPSRC executive chair Philip Nelson said: “This investment will link the aims of reducing infrastructure failures and transforming infrastructure maintenance, and therefore help the UK become more resilient and prosperous.
“The research has gained considerable interest from industry and will have a direct impact on a range of activities, potentially improving safety and reducing costs. We are delighted to see the participation of the project partners who have come on board.”
According to EPSRC, failure of such assets is commonplace. It reports that in 2015, there were 143 earthworks failures on Network Rail assets, which is more than two per week. ESPRC has said that the resulting costs from such failures are high and estimates that Network Rail’s emergency repairs cost 10 times as much as planned works, which in turn cost 10 times as much as maintenance.
The EPSRC says that the vulnerability to these types of failures is also significant and added that derailment from slope failure is the greatest infrastructure-related risk faced by UK railways. However, the causes and prediction of failure is poorly understood.
The Assessment, Costing and Enhancement of long life Long Linear Assets programme – named Achilles - involves experts from the universities of Newcastle, Southampton, Durham, Loughborough, Leeds and Bath, as well as the British Geological Survey, major infrastructure owners and their consultants.
Newcastle University professor of civil engineering and project lead Stephanie Glendinning said: “The aim is to gain a better understanding of the way that linear infrastructure deteriorates under increasing environmental pressure, and to use this understanding to improve investment decisions.
“Through this research we hope to be able to change the way new infrastructure is designed, such as HS2; understand how ageing infrastructure is adapted and how investment strategies are formulated to enable physical and operational resilience.
“You can think of our linear infrastructure as being a bit like a 1970s car.
“It’s been serviced yearly - providing the owner remembers - but could suddenly show the oil warning light just seconds before the engine explodes, causing the owner to crash the car and create traffic chaos.
“By comparison, a modern car has in-built deterioration models and sensors that tell you when a service is due and what it is for so that you can plan your budget; it senses the exterior environment so that lights and wipers come on automatically when needed and it warns of the possibility of ice so the driver can adjust their speed.
“We can’t afford to completely replace all our roads, embankments and flood defences, but we can take that 1970s car and adapt it and update it to make it more resilient and fit for purpose in the 21st century.”