Facing points (part two)

In which we go over some railway history

More notes on the Lambrigg and/or Grayrigg train crash from a couple of weeks ago. Continued from here.

As I said in the first part, it was known for many years that junctions are a dangerous thing. Any place where a train has a choice of routes to take is a danger point, and the railways, for a hundred years or so, got around this by avoiding them as much as possible. A freight train, going into a siding, would have to run past it, stop, and back up slowly into the siding.

This is a very safe and careful thing to do, but it is very, very slow. Trains take a long time to slow down, and a long time to stop. Backing up has to be done very slowly, too, and the whole operation blocks the main line for rather a long time. If the train could run directly into the siding, things would be a lot faster.

Similarly, if one line of a pair has to be closed for engineering works, trains have to run in both directions over the remaining line. The old way of doing this was very slow indeed – the train would have to stop, reverse backwards onto the other track, then reverse again so it was going forwards. All very fiddly and slow,* and it would have been easier if there was a faster way to do things.**

So, in the 1960s and 1970s, an awful lot of the rail network got simplified and redesigned. In particular, “emergency crossovers,” like the ones involved in the Lambrigg crash, were installed every few miles on the main lines. Essentially, all they were there to do was let trains switch across to the other track if one line had to be closed for maintenance. This, though, meant greatly increasing the numbers of relatively dangerous, maintenance-heavy facing points on high-speed main lines. Cost was no longer an issue – greater automation and mechanisation of the railways meant that all points were fitted with exactly the same locking equipment, so the legally-required and previously expensive locks on facing points were now provided for free. Maintenance still mattered, though.

Note that I said “relatively dangerous”. Facing points are maintenance-heavy, purely because they are intrinsically more dangerous than trailing points. This isn’t an issue, though, so long as the maintenance gets done. And, over the years, all points started to be given the same level of maintenance – there is in many ways no longer a distinction between facing and trailing points, maintenance-wise, because as I said above they nearly all have the same fittings.

So long as the maintenance gets done. That is the key. Railways just aren’t maintained in the same way that they used to be. There’s no longer a man walking every stretch of track, every day of the year, looking out for faults, like there used to be. If facing points aren’t maintained properly, they become dangerous, and they’re likely to cause accidents, such as Lambrigg and Potters Bar. The problem is, they’re vital to being able to run the railway smoothly and flexibly. If you want to run a flexible railway, it’s going to cost you more. You have to be willing to pay the price, however you want to pay it.

* there are lots of other rules involving people waving flags and people whose job is just to be unique, but I won’t bore you with them.

** This has nothing to do with the closing of alternative routes, incidentally, which people sometimes go on about as being a Bad Thing in connection with the rail network. Alternative routes are often a lot less useful than people like to make out.

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3 comments on “Facing points (part two)”

  1. Keith Rigby says:

    Ref facing points.
    The faults reported in points have apparently been fundamental mechanical engineering,rather than sophisticated locking or position detection problems.
    Nuts have ‘fallen off’,stretcher bars fractured.Is it simplistic to advocate installation of prevailing torque nuts and advanced material stretcher bars on main line facing points? Automotive engineering suffered from similar,but usually less catastrophic failures,which have been all but eliminated by the use of modern devices and materials.
    Thank you for your clear exposition of the facing points situation.
    Best regards,Keith Rigby.

  2. Forest Pines says:

    I don’t think it is simplistic to think of solutions like that. The idea I was intending to put across was: historically, it was thought that facing points had to be addressed by a) minimal use, and b) locking and detection, which have been legal requirements since the 1880s. The locking and detection is no use, though, if basic maintenance – which is relatively intensive – isn’t carried out.

  3. ANGUS SIBLEY says:

    It seems that many serious accidents have been caused by the decline in maintenance standards, particularly under the deplorable Railtrack regime. Someone once said that certain traditional booking offices, eg the one that used to dominate Glasgow Central, resembled ‘gigantic confessionals’. Since the stations were owned by Railtrack, this seemed especially appropriate.

    More seriously, this is all part of the exorbitant obsession with ‘productivity’ from which we suffer today. This means ensuring that everything is done by the minimum possible number of people. Meanwhile, we have to cope with the chronic disease of unemployment or underemployment, while far too many people find it necessary to scratch a living by attempting to sell us rubbish of all kinds – just visit any major tourist site and see them swarming.

    See “Knights of the Productivity Grail’ (February 2006) on my site, http://www.equilibrium-economicum.net


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