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'Chaos' on Highland line as broken rail causes cancellations

By Tom Ramage

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One of the travellers caught up on the Highland Main Line today has told the Strathy of the 'chaos' which has ensued over the way passengers have been handled.

"There were 40 of us left stranded in the cold at Pitlochry, having initially been told we would get as far as Kingussie at least, where we're told there is at least a waiting room. In fact we were left here to wait in the freezing cold," said John Galloway, returning to his home in Thurso after a trip to Manchester.

Lucky ones find some space on a bus at Pitlochry. Pictures: John Galloway
Lucky ones find some space on a bus at Pitlochry. Pictures: John Galloway

"The replacement bus they sent was virtually full of local passengers and with nothing like enough seats for us."

Mr Galloway - an employee of bus company Stagecoach at home – said it was all very well being offered compensation, but the people waiting just wanted to get moving.

"We're not interested in how to claim financial compensation, we just want to get out of the cold and get on our way."

They had all been held up by the discovery of a broken rail at Kingussie, with the announcement made that all trains from Inverness to Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh had also been cancelled, as well as those heading north, until at least 4pm.

A Network Rail spokesperson explained: "Each year, we find about 100 broken rails across the network that we need to fix.

"Rail can break because of a small defect in a rail which can get bigger with repeated bending from rail traffic or too much overloading. It’s like a wire coat hanger that is bent too much – the wire becomes weak and can snap.

Others must wait at Pitlochry this morning
Others must wait at Pitlochry this morning

"When we find broken rail, we investigate to see why it happened and review how we could change our processes to prevent it from happening again. Our engineers continually work to prevent problems but breakages will still happen from time to time in a network of more than 20,000 miles of track."

It's not known yet precisely how serious the break is at Kingussie, but in the simple cases, the spokesperson said the broken rail was clamped temporarily and the trains slowed down until engineers could get there to fix the problem completely.

"We can easily and quickly fetch a replacement piece for straight or plain track because we keep a certain amount of spare rails and components in stock for repairs.

"If the break is too big or we can’t clamp it, we must close the line until we can replace the rail. If the break is at junctions or switches and crossings, the repair work takes longer as the replacement part has to specially made. It’s also harder to fix in certain places like tunnels.

"Sometimes, we’ll have to close neighbouring lines too. This is to enable the engineering teams to work safely.

"We’ve already managed to reduce the number of broken rails from a peak of 900 down to about 100 breaks a year. However, our engineers continue to work on new ways to prevent and monitor track defects. For example, we’re upgrading the technology we use to monitor the condition of our track.

The company has increased its capacity to monitor, inspect and fix track faults using Plain Line Pattern Recognition Technology in combination with track geometry measurement.

"This technology analyses high definition imagery of the rails, fastenings, sleepers and ballast.

"We’re working towards standardising the railway even more to make it easier to carry out repairs in future instead of having to make bespoke parts.

"New technology such as 3D printing means we could potentially make replacement parts as and when we need them, reducing storage costs and up-front manufacturing costs, too.

"In the meantime, we’re continuing to work on carrying out repairs as quickly and as safely as we can."

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