Eye in the Sky

The South Western Main Line from Water­loo to the South Coast has en­dured a suc­ces­sion of in­fra­struc­ture fail­ures, and Net­work Rail has brought in its he­li­copter to spot fu­ture weak spots. PAUL CLIFTON joins the crew…

Rail (UK) - - Contents - RAIL pho­tog­ra­phy: PAUL CLIFTON

RAIL joins the crew of Net­work Rail‘s he­li­copter as they iden­tify weak spots… and the track team who fix the de­fects.

Cleared for take-off. Net­work Rail’s fault-find­ing team strap them­selves into the he­li­copter. At Fair Oaks Air­port near Chob­ham, in Sur­rey, they go through the pre­flight checks. Andy Still­well sits along­side pi­lot Dar­ren, and passes the sick bag - just in case.

His pre­vi­ous job was based in NR’s Re­gional Op­er­a­tions Cen­tre at Three Bridges. Now he’s ad­just­ing his sun­glasses and the in­ac­cu­rately named ‘noise can­celling head­set’.

Still­well’s cam­eras are in a large gy­rosta­bilised bin­na­cle mounted be­neath his feet. In front of him is a large view­ing screen. He op­er­ates the kit with what looks like a games con­sole.

We’re off. Ris­ing over the el­e­gant McLaren Tech­ni­cal Cen­tre and head­ing for the sub­urbs of south Lon­don. To­day’s task is to fol­low the South Western Main Line from Wim­ble­don to Wok­ing.

Even a cur­sory scroll through so­cial me­dia will il­lus­trate how of­ten pas­sen­gers get caught out by in­fra­struc­ture prob­lems on this route. It’s the busiest line into Water­loo, and each time some­thing goes wrong it af­fects tens of thou­sands of pas­sen­gers. Per­for­mance has been poor… and is get­ting worse.

Fol­low­ing the Thames and then over Rich­mond Park, over Wim­ble­don sta­tion the pi­lot turns south and slows right down. Still­well is about to say: “Off we go then.” But he swal­lows his words: “Well, how about that!”

Barely a hand­ful of sec­onds into his sur­vey, Still­well has found his first fault: “That, gen­tle­men, is a hook switch. That’s a de­vice which trans­fers elec­tric power from the cable to the third rail. As you can see, it is glow­ing on my screen. It shouldn’t be that hot.”

Still­well flicks the cam­era be­tween nor­mal vi­sion and in­fra-red ther­mal imag­ing. He then over­lays lo­ca­tion data and starts record­ing.

“You can see I’ve locked the cam­era onto the lo­ca­tion. So, how­ever the he­li­copter moves around it, the cam­era stays in the same po­si­tion.”

This is hugely im­pres­sive. We are hov­er­ing 1,000 feet up in the air, and to one side of the rail­way line. Yet Still­well’s screen is com­pletely filled with a pin-sharp colour im­age of some­thing the size of his fist.

He flicks into ther­mal mode, and it looks like an ex­plo­sion of heat. Some­thing is clearly very wrong with the switch, yet a nor­mal cam­era would not de­tect it at all. Even some­one walk­ing close be­side it would be un­likely to pick up the fault.

It is a few hun­dred me­tres south of Wim­ble­don sta­tion. Trains pass in­ces­santly.

“That’s a dif­fi­cult one for the en­gi­neers,” he ob­serves. “If they have to turn off the power to get to the tracks there, it could be very chal­leng­ing. Let’s hope that one can wait un­til af­ter the last train at night.”

Still­well tells the pi­lot to carry on south. But within three min­utes, he finds an­other one.

“Just un­der the bridge,” he says, point­ing at a minute dot on his screen. It’s at Hamp­ton Court Junc­tion. He zooms in so that 1% of the im­age sud­denly fills the pic­ture. Sure enough, al­most hid­den in the shadow of a fly­over, there’s an­other hot hook switch.

“We are 1,000 feet up and more than half a mile away from the bridge. But at that dis­tance the cam­era can read a car num­ber plate with ease, or the se­rial num­ber on a piece of rail­way kit. Sig­nal num­bers, points iden­ti­fi­ca­tion plates. In ad­di­tion, the laser sys­tem linked to GPS can pin­point a lo­ca­tion with ex­treme ac­cu­racy.

“It’s quite sim­i­lar to the cam­eras the po­lice use on their he­li­copters. But ours is prob­a­bly a bit more pow­er­ful than the po­lice use.”

The he­li­copter can fly for two hours or so at a time. The cam­era kit is heavy, and eats into the fuel sup­ply - it’s like car­ry­ing a cou­ple of ex­tra pas­sen­gers.

Says Still­well: “If we’re trav­el­ling at 50 to 60mph, we can cover the en­tire route to Bournemouth in one trip. And we can do so in

We are never go­ing to re­place boots on the bal­last - there will al­ways be a need for peo­ple on the ground. But we can pin­point where the prob­lems are. Rather than hav­ing guys walk­ing for a month of Sun­days, we can direct them to where the is­sue is.

Andy Still­well, Net­work Rail

Mostly this is about find­ing faults be­fore they oc­cur. It’s about the speed and ge­o­graph­i­cal scope we can cover. Jason Bridges, Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer, Wes­sex Route, Net­work Rail

day­light while the trains are still run­ning.

“On a typ­i­cal flight we will find half a dozen or more faults, depending on how long it has been since we last flew the route. We are never go­ing to re­place boots on the bal­last - there will al­ways be a need for peo­ple on the ground. But we can pin­point where the prob­lems are. Rather than hav­ing guys walk­ing for a month of Sun­days, we can direct them to where the is­sue is.”

Still­well looks out­ra­geously fit. He does triathlons. Handy, as the tem­per­a­ture in­side the he­li­copter is sti­fling on a sunny sum­mer’s day (the 30° air tem­per­a­ture out­side is cool in com­par­i­son). Af­ter work­ing in a win­dow­less con­trol room, this must be about as good a job as you can find any­where on the rail­way?

“I think the nov­elty is wear­ing off,” he replies. Re­ally? “The pi­lot gets the lux­ury of look­ing out of the win­dow and en­joy­ing the view. I spend the whole time look­ing at the screen. I can’t take my eyes off it for a mo­ment. Quite of­ten I lose track of where I am, be­cause I am con­cen­trat­ing so hard on look­ing for prob­lems.

“This isn’t a job for any­one who ever gets re­motely air­sick. You’re not able to look around. For some peo­ple this job would make you re­ally un­well, be­lieve me!”

It also means a life in ho­tels. Net­work Rail only char­ters one air­craft from PDG He­li­copters. And be­cause of the short range, it of­ten means a dif­fer­ent Premier Inn each night of the week.

The crew do six days at a time, mostly out of small air­ports and air­fields. Hire cars are lined up to meet them, be­cause ho­tels are rarely lo­cated close to places that have no sched­uled air­lines. In fact, af­ter the Wes­sex Route is done, the next stop two days later is in Scot­land.

The job done, we re­turn to Fair Oaks. The re­fu­elling tanker is al­ready wait­ing.

A small child is watch­ing from the Han­gar Cafe. His grand­fa­ther has brought him along for some­thing to do dur­ing the school hol­i­days.

Still­well and pi­lot Dar­ren es­cort him over to the he­li­copter. They sit him in the

pi­lot’s seat and do up the har­ness. The boy has a grin wider than the ro­tor blades.

“One of the great things about this job is you get to be an am­bas­sador for the rail­way,” says Still­well.

“We’re a pub­lic face of the com­pany, and we can ex­plain a bit about what we do. That lad and his guardian are go­ing home with a new en­thu­si­asm for the rail­way, and we’ve told them a bit about safety.”

Jason Bridges, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer for Net­work Rail’s Wes­sex Route, says the he­li­copter rep­re­sents value for money.

“We op­er­ate one of the most in­ten­sive net­works in the UK,” he ex­plains.

“We get the he­li­copter about once ev­ery six weeks, and we find faults on 90% of the flights we do.

“We look out for tres­passers, too. But mostly this is about find­ing faults be­fore they oc­cur. It’s about the speed and ge­o­graph­i­cal scope we can cover. Also, we don’t want our staff out walk­ing on these busy tracks any more than is nec­es­sary. This is a safer way of work­ing.

“We get a much bet­ter-qual­ity im­age from the air. The el­e­va­tion gives the cam­era a clean view of the rail­way. And the equip­ment is heavy - it is eas­ier to put it in the he­li­copter than it is to carry it along the tracks. This is a much bet­ter qual­ity of in­spec­tion than we would get on the ground.

“The im­ages are now be­ing sent to the con­trol cen­tre in Bas­ingstoke. They can as­sess the ur­gency of the prob­lems and come up with a re­sponse plan.”

That re­sponse plan turns out to be an emer­gency pos­ses­sion to re­place over­heat­ing hook switches, and the fol­low­ing night RAIL is out with the track team.

In an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion dur­ing the day, they can some­times com­plete a hook switch re­place­ment in 20 min­utes. Jack Roberts, Project Man­ager, Net­work Rail

The ren­dezvous is at 2300, at Raynes Park de­pot in south Lon­don. Af­ter an hour and a half hang­ing around, it’s a half-hour drive from the de­pot to a site near Ashtead sta­tion in Sur­rey.

The team does not get the track un­til af­ter the last train has passed at 0030.

Then it takes a fur­ther hour for the team of four to con­firm the track pos­ses­sion with the power switched off. There­after, it’s a rou­tine job.

“The hook switch has been iden­ti­fied by the he­li­copter, so here we are chang­ing it,” ex­plains team leader Peni To­gotu.

He holds out a black­ened bolt that had at­tached the unit to the track: “It looks like it has been burn­ing for a few days. If we left it for an­other week it would prob­a­bly cause some prob­lems, some de­lays.”

The prob­lem is on the Up line, but the team changes the match­ing switch on the Down side as a pre­cau­tion. Each one only takes 20 min­utes. But with the time taken to make the third rail safe to work on, for this gang it’s most of their night’s work.

“We have to take de­tailed steps to isolate the equip­ment,” says project man­ager Jack Roberts. Nor­mally he ‘drives a desk’, so he’s rel­ish­ing be­ing out in the soft rain at half past two in the morn­ing.

“We have to block the lines to pre­vent trains run­ning through, and put mea­sures in place to stop any ac­ci­den­tal re-en­er­gis­ing of the line. These guys have two to three hours work­ing time on the track each night. Some­times they have longer at week­ends.

“And in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion dur­ing the day, they can some­times com­plete a hook switch re­place­ment in 20 min­utes.”

The track is re­opened well be­fore the first train is due to ap­pear at dawn.

This whole task, from ini­tial he­li­copter ob­ser­va­tion to com­ple­tion of the re­pair, has taken a lit­tle un­der 48 hours. With­out the ther­mal imag­ing eye in the sky, the po­ten­tial prob­lem might not have been spot­ted be­fore the fault be­came a fail­ure that would have dis­rupted tens of thou­sands of pas­sen­gers, per­haps for many hours.

So, Net­work Rail thinks the high cost of char­ter­ing the he­li­copter with its highly spe­cialised crew is more than jus­ti­fied.

It’s per­haps like go­ing to the den­tist for some pre­ven­tive treat­ment. Bet­ter to catch the prob­lem early and deal with it, than wait un­til it re­ally starts to hurt.

High in the sky, Net­work Rail’s he­li­copter pro­vides a quicker and safer al­ter­na­tive to man­ual track in­spec­tion while also more eas­ily de­tect­ing in­stances of tres­pass.

NR char­ters a sin­gle he­li­copter, which can fly for ap­prox­i­mately two hours be­fore it needs re­fu­elling. Faults are found on 90% of its out­ings, jus­ti­fy­ing its high cost.

NR’s fault-find­ing teams rely on the large gy­rosta­bilised bin­na­cle mounted be­neath the he­li­copter.

Hov­er­ing 1,000ft above the South Western Main Line, a hook switch fault is spot­ted us­ing in­frared ther­mal imag­ing. Less than 48 hours later it is dis­cretely re­placed by track work­ers dur­ing an emer­gency overnight pos­ses­sion be­fore it can de­velop into a highly dis­rup­tive fail­ure.

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