Scotland’s oil capital reconnected today after summer derailment

The mainline south from Aberdeen is reopening today, Tuesday, 3 November. The city at the centre of the UK offshore oil industry has been blocked since August, when a passenger train derailed and badly damaged the line southwards towards Dundee, central Scotland, and England via the East Coast Main Line. The re-opening is a little under two weeks earlier than had been expected.

The mixed-use railway has been closed to all traffic since 12 August, when an early morning passenger express derailed due to storm damage, killing three people on board. The accident caused extensive damage to the track, bridgeworks, signalling systems, embankments and drainage at a difficult to access rural location.

The line was intensively used by passenger services, connecting Aberdeen directly with Glasgow and Edinburgh, and destinations in England as far away as London, Birmingham, Bristol and Plymouth. Some of the longest distance scheduled trains in the UK use the route. Freight from Aberdeen’s Waterloo docks terminal also used the route south, including a recently inaugurated regular gypsum consignment to Spalding in the east of England.

Reopening has proved very challenging

News of the derailment made the headlines in the UK on 12 August. It was the first derailment to result in a passenger fatality on the railway in over a decade. Britain had endured a series of severe summer storms during August, which had caused multiple problems on the network, particularly flooding and landslips. It was a series of landslips which caused the 06:38 ScotRail Aberdeen-Glasgow service to derail, with the loss of three lives.

The accident site, south of Aberdeen, seen from the air, with the temporary access road, rebuilt embankments and rebuilt bridge all visible (Network Rail)

After the accident, and as an immediate precaution, hundreds of sites across Britain with higher-risk trackside slopes, similar to the earthworks at the Stonehaven location, were urgently reviewed. These inspections were carried out by both in-house engineers and specialist contractors, supplemented by helicopter surveys. Network Rail also launched two task forces, led by independent experts, as part of greater long-term response to climate change and the challenge of maintaining its legacy portfolio of earthworks, many of which date from the nineteenth-century.

Extent of the repairs

Network Rail engineering teams have been working around-the-clock since the incident, says the infrastructure management agency. Work included extensive cooperation with accident investigators, before beginning work in September to recover the derailed train and repair and reopen the railway.

Because both tracks were destroyed at the site, and blocked by a whole series of landslips, rail access was not possible. Reconstruction work therefore has included building a new 900-metre road and temporary bridges over the surrounding farmland. Heavy lifting required on-site construction of a 600-tonne crane to lift the derailed power cars and carriages from the railway. Over 500 metres of damaged track and 70 metres of bridge parapets required replacement, along with 400 metres of telecoms cables, new drainage systems and flood defences. The earthworks have been revised and rebuilt.

Long term implications

The railways around Aberdeen have been the subject of an extensive programme of enhancement in recent years. The city is a nationally important economic hub, and due to its northerly location, Aberdeen has been identified as a prime location for rail freight development. The city’s station (pictured), through which all passenger and freight traffic passes, is scheduled for an eight million British pounds revamp (8.8 million euros). The network around the city has however been very much reduced in the past fifty years. Several long branch lines, serving inland and coastal towns with industrial, intermodal, agricultural and marine traffic potential have all been disconnected from the network.

A flow of imported gypsum, used in paper making, began from Aberdeen docks to the east of England earlier this year. There is capacity for more freight from the city’s Waterloo terminal, and business development managers will welcome the reopening of the main line (Network Rail).

However, Aberdeen city itself has under-used freight facilities – primarily in the Waterloo docks terminal. Experts agree that there is potential for more freight traffic generation. There are also long-standing lobbies for reinstatement of some routes, particularly to the fishing ports of Fraserburgh and Peterhead, which are not well served by road. Nevertheless, the opening earlier this year of a hugely expensive and controversial road bypass has relieved some city congestion, but undermined the case for rail reopening and rail freight in the short term. The complete closure of the railway to the south has been harmful as well, since the only alternative is an unviable detour via Inverness, which adds over 200 miles (360km) to any southbound journey.

While passenger services will resume immediately, and freight will follow very soon, the effects of the four-month closure are likely to be felt in business development departments for some time longer.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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