NCE at 50 | Editors’ key moments: Claire Smith 2020-present

Claire Smith

Getting journalists onto site quickly to ascertain the contributing factors that have led to engineering failures has been central to the success of the insight NCE has delivered over the last 50 years. 

I feel fortunate that, at the time of writing, there have been relatively few major civil engineering disasters since I took over as editor. Maybe some credit for the reducing risk resulting from the industry’s work lies with NCE, holding the sector to account to improve standards over the last 50 years.

However, the one factor that we, as a sector alone, cannot control is the impact of climate change and the unpredictable weather it causes was a major factor behind the fatal Carmont derailment on 12 August 2020.

When the news broke of a significant train crash and subsequent fire, the skies in the early images from site were blue with not a cloud to be seen. Yet initial reports about the incident, which claimed the lives of three people with the other six people on the train injured, suggested the cause was a landslide triggered by heavy rain.  

Challenging coverage

As might be clear from the accounts of my predecessors, it was natural for an NCE journalist to be sent to the scene as soon as an incident of this type occurs. The Carmont crash was significant – it was the first fatal derailment following a landslide in the UK in 25 years.

But the challenge of getting onto site over the last two years has gone beyond that of budgets, visas and site access as a result of the pandemic. This has led to the majority of NCE’s content being written from spare rooms, dining rooms and even sheds rather than from site. When it has come to engineering failures, the team has had to rely on trusted industry experts to analyse images and videos and deliver the same level of insight.

Nonetheless, I believe that this method of remote working meant that the death toll from the incident was significantly lower than it might have been in pre-Covid times.

Despite not being able to go to site, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch and Network Rail shared details about the lead up to the derailment that pinpointed the blame on washout from a drainage channel. 

In the weeks following the derailment, it emerged that the speed of the train and the volume of rainfall in the vicinity were two major factors.

Unapproved design changes

The recently published final report also laid blame on unapproved design changes carried out by contractor Carillion when it undertook work on site a decade before too. 

The design changes combined with the rainfall meant that a larger volume of water than the drain was designed for was directed into the structure, causing the washout.

The accident led to a rapid inspection at more than 500 sites on the rail network with similar characteristics to the Carmont location. A number have since undergone maintenance.

Following the incident, Network Rail commissioned a weather advisory taskforce – led by Dame Slingo – and an earthworks management taskforce – led by ICE past president Lord Mair. Each considered how the railway can better cope with extreme weather. Both taskforces highlighted the substantial challenge that climate change poses for the railway. 

While the quality of the engineering work delivered by the sector in the last 50 years has significantly improved, sadly, I anticipate that lack of climate resilience will be a major cause of engineering failures reported on by NCE in the 50 years to come.

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One comment

  1. Missing from the Carmont accident report was why the train was travelling at line speed, despite part of the route already having been closed from track damage and the train involved having to being unable to complete its scheduled journey. The driver knew this, so why did he not drop his speed? The local Network Rail controllers knew this, so why did they not impose, say, a 40 or 50 mph temporary limit? Temporary speed limits are readily imposed on motorways following damage to the carriageway, what happened at Carmont? And most road vehicle drivers reduce their speeds in adverse conditions. Blaming only the construction of the drainage seems to me to be very one-sided.

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