Today I met with Network Rail, and the many contractors on site, who are grappling with one of the biggest engineering problems I have ever seen. Over 35,000 + tons of earth, trees, and debris have to be made safe, moved and then reinstated following the landslip that blocked the Tyne Valley railway line last week. I have attached below some photos to give an idea of the huge scale of this landslip. It extends over a hundred yards wide and goes back well beyond the slope itself that goes down steeply to the railway. There are around 50 people on site and a plethora of diggers, and other machinery being used to make good the site. Everyone understands how important the line is for commuters, business, freight and tourism.
My thanks to Rob McIntosh of Netwrok Rail (pictured) and his team - many of whom I met and talked to - for allowing myself and others onto the site today, and for explaining in detail how this happened, what the engineering and restructuring task is that they are undertaking, and how long it will take to reinstate. The original fear, as reported in the Hexham Courant, was that it would take months to clear the site. That is not the expectation any more. In the last week the team have taken over the farmers field, created an access road, brought over a dozen heavy goods machinery and vehicles onto the site and organised dozens of engineers, clearance contractors, digger drivers, chainsaw crews to attend and sort the problem. I genuinely do not believe that the effort of Network Rail to correct the problem could be faulted. They have brought several teams urgently onto the site where needed, including specialists from out of the area, and they are working 12 hour shifts, with some staying in local pubs and bed and breakfasts in Hexham and Corbridge.
The way ahead is as follows: the site is being made safe and cleared. I do stress that no one uninvited should try and visit the site for their own safety, which was clearly an issue on several levels. There are significant on site complications, including ruptured drains, and a broken pipes that were underground and which has needed temporary and long term repair. In addition, part of the field above and on the edge of the works being done in the field are old Roman settlements and this has required approvals and assistance from the relevant heritage and archeological teams. This is sorted. The site is being made safe. Dozens of trees which have moved, fallen or become unstable are being felled, chopped and then removed. Some of the trees and soil will then be extracted by special train or lorries in the near future. The site can only be cleared and then reinstated from the top down for safety reasons. Bear in mind the men are working on a steep incline. But the soil will then be reinstated in a series of large drop offs. The reality now is that it is expected that the railway will be open again in around 3-4 weeks. Clearly the teams are working in early January in very challenging Northumberland conditions so there is a potential for weather delays, but I was impressed by the competence, commitment and quality of the all team working on this massive site. They are genuinely confident that the railway will be able to be operational in 3-4 weeks. They will be completing the reinstating of the site above the railway for a month or so afterwards. As I say, some of the teams are staying locally and have been made to feel very welcome locally in Tynedale (particular thanks to the people who dropped off a cake to the workmen - it did not last long - and praise to Station Inn in Hexham, where several of the lads are staying and are being very well looked after).
Two final points:
- this job could not go any faster, and be safe, given the dozens of men working with machinery from diggers to cranes to chainsaws in close proximity on unstable, highly sloping ground. Network Rail have really put their backs into this. The teams of men I met assured me that they were getting all the assistance they needed locally from every government agency and connected quangos, but by and large it is their problem and they are getting on with it. In reality, they have a big engineering job to do and are getting on with it, and with a likely outcome that is a lot faster than was originally feared.
- I realise that there are separate ongoing problems with Northern Rail's replacement service, both as to timetable marriage with bus services, which is not synchronised properly at the moment, the failure to provide any train service to Riding Mill and Stocksfield, and a lack of information. I have met received representations on this from several sources, notably the Tyne Valley Rail Users Group and I am in contact with Northern Rail and will update with answers on this and other issues shortly.