Working safely on the railroad

20 June 2019

The CPA has released a new Good Practice guide, 'Requirements for mobile cranes alongside railways controlled by Network Rail.' Julian Champkin spoke to its editor Tim Watson about the reasons for the document and the advice it gives.

“The biggest fear of Network Rail is that a crane comes down on a station, a rail line, or, most disastrously of all, on a train itself.” Tim Watson of the CPA is the editor of their new guidelines for crane users working near railways.

Lifting operations by their very nature involve risk. The risk is magnified if the work is by a railway line. A crane collapse, or a load drop, onto railway tracks in the path of an incoming train could have catastrophic consequences.

It can happen. In July 2013 a crane installing railway points overturned onto a passing passenger train. The crane gouged a hole in the side of the train and ripped out a window, but none of the 250 passengers were hurt. The incident caused major disruption to national commuter rail services.

More recently, on 11th June 2018 a tower crane by a railway line was being dismantled. The jib had just been lifted from the crane when one end dropped onto the track just as a train was approaching. The train driver applied the emergency brakes; even so the jib pierced his cab. By great good fortune neither the driver nor any passengers were injured; but it could have caused very many fatalities.

Both these accidents took place in Switzerland – not a country one associates with lax safety regulations. There have been no such incidents in the UK for many years. Given that safety record, why did the CPA feel the need to issue such a document?

“Network Rail (NR) has had its own guidance system for crane users,” says Watson. “It needed an update. But the problem with a simple update was that the asset protection people in different regions of NR had been applying the guidance slightly differently, and that had resulted in slightly different standards.

"So our aim was to produce a document that had all the asset protection people – that is, everyone in Network Rail – signed up to it. When they have all said “Yes, we agree” then that becomes the nationwide standard.”

It is NR who are responsible for the safety of their network. For that reason, says Watson, it was NR rather than the CPA who fundamentally decided the contents of the document. “We worked together, but it was they who called the shots. Our role was to make sure that what was in the document is achievable.”

The guide does not introduce any additional requirements that crane users need to adhere to. The purpose is different: it is to produce a single, easily-accessible document endorsed by NR, which puts all the required information in one place.

“It is pretty much the only resource with this information. NR's website has guidance, but it tends to be general rather than specific. The whole point was to give something simpler. Our document has the NR logo on the front. They have endorsed it. So now you will know the regulations and requirements, what you have to do, and they will apply wherever you are in the UK.”

The guidance covers what it calls ‘temporarily installed nonrail mounted lifting equipment' including the full gamut of mobile cranes, along with telehandlers and excavators used for lifting. CPA has a separate guidance document for towers, “Requirements for Tower Cranes Alongside Railways Controlled by Network Rail”, available on free download from

“But you see a lot of tower cranes beside railways, and they need big mobile assist cranes to put them up.”

Rail-mounted lifting equipment is also separately covered, by "RIS- 1700-PLT Rail Industry Standard for Safe Use of Plant for Infrastructure Work" ( railway-group-standards).

On track to safety

What should you do if you are using a mobile crane near a railway line? Or, more accurately, what should you do if you are planning such work? Because, says Watson, the first thing is to talk to NR. “You should do it as early in the planning process as possible. The earlier you talk, the easier it will be. Once you are on-site it is too late.”

So how near a railway line do you have to be to fall within these guidelines and to notify NR? “You need to work out the compound collapse radius of your crane” says Watson. “That is, where the jib would end up if it collapsed, plus the longest dimension of the load (or half the longest dimension if the load is slung about its mid-point.) If the compound collapse radius comes within 4m of a Network Rail asset, you should consult Network Rail.

“One thing to realise early on is that the guidance applies not just whenever you are working next to a NR railway line, but when you are working near any NR property. The embankments, stations and station buildings, even car parks – if NR own them, and if you are nearer than 4m, you must follow the guidelines.” This might seem mindless bureaucracy. It is not. “There is lineside equipment; there are transformers. Your insurance is unlikely to pay for any damage you do to those if you have ignored the rules.”

If your compound collapse radius is more than the required distance away, the lift plan demonstrating that that is the case should still be sent to NR, who may ask for further details. The CPA guidance paper gives contact details for all the appropriate NR asset managers.

If you are within the distance and the edge of the combined collapse radius is less than 4m from a Network asset then you have to do various things, says Watson. “The first thing to do is to talk to NR,” he says. Again, contact details are in the guidance.

“One possible thing they may require of you is to down-rate the crane and up-rate the outrigger loads, for example from 10t to 13.3t. Increasing the safety factors in this way is a logical way to reduce risk. Foundations must be designed to take the crane's outrigger loads with factors of safety included. Another course of action might be to limit the slew of the crane to prevent it infringing the 4m line. Physical slew limiters would be an option. It is perfectly possible that NR inspectors could turn up to check them.”

One thing to avoid if at all possible is oversailing the railway with your boom. “Do whatever you can to avoid that” says Watson. “It is very much a last resort.” Oversailing will make work very much more complex. It will require a line block—in other words, no trains may run underneath while you are operating. Railway timetables are crowded and complex, and NR is understandably reluctant to halt trains on their lines. The disruption cascades and may take a day or more to return to normal.

“Line blocks are difficult to arrange” says Watson. “The lead time can easily be a year. And on your appointed day there might be a gale preventing you from operating, which means that you will have to apply for another line block, another year away. Even if there is no gale your time slot could be from midnight to 2am, when no commuter trains are running. All of which means that a line block is something that really do not want to be involved with.”

“So the first advice is: be far enough away from the railway. If that is not achievable, then follow the hierarchy of steps in the guidance. They are easy to understand, if not always easy to achieve.”

Given that you do manage to avoid the need for a line block, how difficult is it to satisfy the requirements of operating near NR? “The difficulty depends on circumstances. It does involve more administration. Start talking to NR at the planning stage. Tell them: ‘This is what we want to do. This is the crane we intend to use. This will be our back-up if the first crane is unavailable,’ if you do that, NR are not obstructive, they're very helpful.

“But if you wait until you are on site and tell them ‘We are needing to do this lift this afternoon’ they will not be impressed. There have been cases where NR have sent an inspector and stopped lifting work until the hoops have been jumped through, with all the delays and costs that involves.”

“It is not unreasonable,” says Watson. “They do everything they can to reduce the risk to their public.”

Working near overhead power lines presents a danger of arcing. Not all of the risks are so obvious. “A tall crane may need aircraft warning lights – a red light at the top of the boom. A red light to a train driver means ‘Stop.’ You can imagine the scenario.” NR have a notification system, similar to that given to aircraft pilots. They can tell the driver of the 8.52 that the red light he will see three miles out of Basingstoke is a crane, not a signal. But they cannot tell him unless they have been informed themselves.

“The take-home message is ‘communication’” says Watson. “Talk to Network Rail as early as possible.”

The CPA guidance document is about working with Network Rail. There are many other railway owners in the UK, like the Underground, DLR and other metros, that may have different requirements. “Something like 50% of the London Underground is actually above ground” says Watson; “Our intention is to talk to LU and DLR and see if they are prepared to endorse these guidelines and work to them. They may have additional requirements; if so, we will hope to incorporate them.”

Meanwhile the current document is available on free download from CPA's website.