For Network Rail, it will be an orange Christmas

Engineering work over the holidays is vital to accomplish over £100m of improvements under the Railway Upgrade Plan, addressing capacity issues and supporting economic growth

For most people, Christmas is a time to be spent with family and friends; a welcome end-of-year break from the routine of the day job and a chance to relax, eat, drink and be merry. Businesses are shut and people can spend their well-earned days off with their loved ones, catching up and having a good time.

But as we all know, that's not the case for frontline staff in the rail industry, including many of Network Rail's "orange army". For us, Christmas is when we go into overdrive.

On Christmas Eve, as the last trains of the day depart their stations carrying passengers home to their families, some sections of the railway network will close. Approximately 24,000 engineers will pick up their tools to start work on over 200 key projects all across the country and help deliver over £103m worth of upgrades and improvements as part of our Railway Upgrade Plan for 2016.

In fact, this year the volume of work is so great, work will begin earlier on some projects and will affect travel during the day on Christmas Eve. This essential programme of investment will provide more frequent, faster services to help relieve overcrowding and respond to the tremendous growth we've seen on Britain's railways over the past 20 years.

This process happens every single night of the year, but over Christmas some sections of the railway are closed for several days in a row. This extended period of closure gives us a unique opportunity to carry out some significant, one-time only upgrades with much greater efficiency, compared with our "business as usual" maintenance slots which are often just three or four hours per night; and it allows us to get the work done faster, with less consequent future disruption.

Behind the scenes, these setpieces will have been years in the planning: wholesale demolitions
of deteriorating structures, huge swathes of track replacements, complex signal renewals, large-scale switch and crossing replacements, difficult electrification preparations, lifting entire road-over-rail bridges into place – massive jobs that require a longer time to complete and can only be accomplished when those sections of the railway are closed. These could never be achieved during the tiny windows of opportunity we get on a regular night.

I firmly believe that improving Britain's railway is vital for economic growth, jobs, and housing. The railway has been growing by 3-4% for 20 years, representing the fastest level of growth since the Victorian era – and passenger numbers are expected to double over the next 25 years, which is all quite fantastic. But with rising passenger numbers comes rising congestion. Though our infrastructure is the most reliable it has ever been, each incident on the railway now has a bigger impact and causes more knockon delays than it did in the past. Addressing this capacity issue is a top priority for us, which is why these upgrades are so important.

The Government is investing more in the railway than anybody has ever invested, and this Christmas our orange army will spend a combined 600,000 hours working to complete our Christmas upgrade work.

I am often asked: "Why now? Why do engineering over Christmas when everyone's trying to get
home to see family and friends?"

I understand their frustration. And I understand that it can seem very busy during this time. But it's actually one of the quietest times on the railway. Every day, 4.5 million people use the railway. But over the Christmas holidays, passenger numbers drop by up to 50%. So this is the best time because it's when our work has the least impact on passengers overall.

Of course, there's never truly a good time to close parts of the railway and carry out engineering work. Passengers are our top priority so we plan these projects meticulously, jointly with the train operating companies, to make sure they are completed as quickly and efficiently as possible, keeping disruption to a minimum. In fact, despite our essential upgrades the vast majority of the rail network, more than 90%, remains unaffected and will be open for business as usual.

Nevertheless, in the buildup we work as hard as we can with our TOC partners to make sure passengers are aware of what's going on: posters, flyers, hoardings, social media, radio ads and newspaper ads have all been pumping out messages advising passengers to plan their journeys as early as possible in the run-up to Christmas. And, as I said, unlike previous years, work on a few major projects will begin in the early hours on Christmas Eve. This will mean significant changes to train services out of London Paddington and London Liverpool Street in particular – so we're advising passengers travelling from these stations to travel before Christmas Eve where possible.

This Christmas represents a key part of our Railway Upgrade Plan – it is vital investment that will prompt economic growth, jobs, and housing, and will make the railway more reliable for years to come, while improving journeys for thousands of passengers.

Reference: Transport Times December 2016 Issue

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