In May, Network Rail published its main strategic plan for CP7, the five years from April 2024. The current period, CP6, has seen enormous challenge and change for the rail sector, including repeated COVID lockdowns, inflation levels not seen for a generation, and extreme weather events driven by climate change. As a specialist in civil engineering for rail, WCS has been meeting challenges at the heart of these storms on many occasions throughout CP6 and expects to do so again throughout CP7.  

We asked our Technical Director, Jeremy Barnes, to offer some thoughts on what the industry has learned during CP6, and what we can expect in CP7. 

The wider picture 

In creating its plans, Network Rail seeks to deliver on longer-term goals set by government. Five in particular have been identified for rail: 

  • meeting customers’ needs 
  • delivering financial sustainability 
  • contributing to long-term economic growth 
  • levelling up & connectivity 
  • delivering environmental sustainability 

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) also sets goals, with Network Rail saying in its new document that it aims for “delivery of the Government’s five strategic objectives” plus the ORR’s “four stated periodic review objectives of safety, train performance, efficiency and asset sustainability – all within the funding available”. 

The emphasis on funding available is not incidental. Efficiency was mentioned repeatedly throughout the business plan. Everyone in the sector will clearly be expected to work smarter in CP7, and make the most of every pound available. The focus is expected to be on maintaining and upgrading existing infrastructure, rather than big new projects.  

Safety was also a key topic, as was the use of new ways of working, such as remote condition monitoring of assets. That last point is of course linked to safety, as well as efficiency: it is both cheaper and safer to avoid sending engineers trackside, where that is possible. 

Efficiency developments through CP6 

Identifying the correct solution and bringing experience while also being open to new approaches, is key to how good design can meet time and budget constraints. With an increased focus on efficiency in CP7, our experience and adaptability will continue to inform how WCS approaches projects. 

One of the developments we’ve seen during CP6 is a strong focus on buildability. Utilising offsite fabrication where possible, for example increased use of pre-casting bridge concrete sections, rather than casting in situ, which uses up valuable possession time. This means construction is: quicker, with the risk of delays reduced; safer, reducing the number of workers at height; and often delivers cost savings and improves the quality of the concrete.  

New permanent works, for example the modular bridges and concrete piers used for parts of the HS2 project, have adopted offsite manufacturing, benefiting from the fact the new designs could be standardised. However, our experience has shown this approach can also deliver benefits for the maintenance and repair of existing assets. While offsite fabrication, involving existing structures can’t be standardised in the same way – because each structure is different from the next – the approach still delivers efficiency and safety, as well as material quality. 

This depth of experience with maintenance and repair, and the design challenge that working with existing structures offers, is central to why I joined WCS. I think the team’s learnings from CP6 will position us well to help clients deliver the efficiency that will be expected in the CP7 era. 

One approach that has served us well is implementing regular weekly buildability meetings with our clients, rather than simply meeting for the occasional formal reviews. Getting feedback early and often, helps to identify questions and overcome challenges as they arise. Increased awareness also gives the construction team an earlier opportunity to think through what the design means for their work – help with forward planning. As a result of this collaborative approach, when the final designs are delivered, there are no surprises, making the review process more efficient and reducing the need for changes.  

WCS’s emphasis on early collaboration extends to partners on the projects as well. If we engage a specialist, for a ground survey, for example, it’s important for them to be involved in discussions from the start where possible.

Rail and sustainability 

CP6 saw an emphasis on sustainability, which will grow in CP7. As we discussed in our piece on net zero, WCS has a long history of working on rail electrification, and also on renewable energy projects, so we are ideally placed to support clients in this area. 

WCS MD Asa Whitfield has written about the challenges and opportunities in rail electrification

Climate change is obviously the driver of net zero concern, and we are seeing direct effects of it on our rail infrastructure; the CP7 plan noted that 7% of recent delays and cancellations during CP6 were due to weather. It is clear drainage, earthworks and structures impacted by flooding and other weather events will be a focus for Network Rail during CP7 and beyond. WCS often works in this area and we shared our experience of extreme weather’s effect on civil engineering design in a recent blog. 

The importance of freight 

Freight is a key focus for Network Rail – to deliver both environmental and financial sustainability. During CP6, we saw that this is an area of rail service that has shown resilience through the COVID period; whilst the rail public’s habits changed and passenger numbers remain lower than pre-pandemic, the volume of freight increased and is expected to continue to grow rapidly. Rail freight already contributes £2.45bn to the UK economy each year, and in order to meet the UK’s net zero goals the Government is committed to supporting businesses to shift from road to rail.  

WCS has experience working on projects that support freight services across the rail network, for example, a project we undertook on a retaining wall at Ipswich Depot. With an ageing rail infrastructure, maintenance and repair works will be a priority in CP7, and vital to keeping lines open. This is important to Network Rail because consistent service is key to freight customers being confident and continuing to use rail.  

Safety and new technology 

Safety for workers and the public is a core focus of CP7 plans. Over the last decade Network Rails’ safety by design approach, has become part of the DNA of the whole industry, shaping practices and collaboration, and our mission at WCS is to be at the forefront of the evolution of this. In CP6 we saw the launch of the Track Worker Safety Forum and changes such as eliminating the use of Unassisted Lookouts and Lookout Operated Warning Systems (LOWS) resulting in a 98% reduction in red zone unassisted lookout working. There will always be times when trackside attendance is required, but wherever possible the industry is looking to avoid it, for example with a focus in CP7 on investment in new remote monitoring technology and innovation.  

Here at WCS, we are finding that more and more of our work involves technologies such as AIVR,  a train-mounted video condition monitoring system which allows for more frequent inspection of assets and gives access to remote and hazardous parts of the rail network such as inside tunnels – which would have traditionally required track closures to assess. Technology’s contribution to improved safety, both reducing time on track and supporting the early identification of issues requiring maintenance, means this is a practice that is only going to grow during CP7. 

Looking toward CP7, it is clear that our experience during CP6 puts WCS, and the industry, in a strong position, and ready to meet the challenges Network Rail has identified. Together, we will deliver a more efficient and safer network, which supports wider economic and sustainability goals. 

To find out more about our work in rail civils & structures and electrification, please see our portfolio page, or get in touch via our contact page