ProRail: winterproof railway switch should be re-assessed

The Dutch infrastructure manager ProRail will reassess the so-called WInterproof RAilway (WIRA) switch that was fabricated ten years ago. According to the inventor of the switch, it could have been the solution to failing switches of the railway network under severe winter conditions. However, ProRail found that the switch did not meet the requirements when it was tested in 2014.

The discussion that took place back then flared up again when the Dutch railway network succumbed to one of the harshest snow storms the country witnessed in years, in February. The Harbour Line of the port of Rotterdam suffered especially. Due to malfunctioning switches, rail freight traffic on the vital line was stranded for more than a week. Jessica van den Bosch, director account management at ProRail, looked back at the disruptions in RailFreight Live on 12 March.

Switch heaters failed

The problem was twofold, van den Bosch explained. “It started with the switch heaters. We knew we were vulnerable, as some of these switches are outdated. But we did not know it was going to be this extreme.” As the account manager explains, the snow was powdery and there were harsh winds. The snow kept on creeping back into the tracks. “Even if the switch heating would have functioned, they could not have coped with this combination of wind and powdery snow.

The questionable state of some of the switches on the Dutch railway network is not a secret. The fact that something had to be done, was one of the main conclusions of the Crisislab report, published in October last year. ProRail is currently rolling out a three-year modernisation programme, including the repair of 100 malfunctioning switches. “This requires patience. We have just completed the first year, we still need two years to complete this programme”, said van den Bosch.

Winter switch

An important question though is whether ProRail has come to new conclusions after the storm that surprised all. A new type of switch that could cope with such weather conditions could help. “We are going to reassess the WIRA switch” said van den Bosch. When we assessed the switch back in 2014, it did not meet the safety requirements. But maybe it changed in the meantime.”

The WIRA switch was devised by Richard de Roos in 2012, and is now at the Technical University of Delft. The mechanical engineer developed the switch in such a way that it no longer requires heating. Because the switch works with vertically moving switchblades instead of horizontal ones, snow and ice can no longer fall between them. As a result, the winter weather is unable to harm its operation.

How to invest?

“It would take a lot of funds to change to another type of switch. The question is whether this is a good investment to make, considering that heavy snowfall such as in February only occurs from time to time. We are also looking at climate change and the impact on the weather. It looks like heavy wind and rainfall are likely to occur more and more, and we need to invest in that too”, said van den Bosch.

To the question whether the WIRA switch would be applied if it does meet the safety requirements today, she could not give an answer. We are investigating this now. We are making a business case, to see what it costs and which benefits it has. Then, we will make a decision.”

Contingency plan

The bigger gain, in her opinion, can be achieved in having a solid contingency plan. Here she comes to the second element of what went wrong in February. “We could have started up much faster. It took too long for rail freight, and we apologise for that.”

According to her, ProRail had underestimated the impact of the weather. There were extra snow teams, but this was by far not enough to get rail freight moving again. The port was inaccessible for days, with only a handful of operators able to move out a single train. It was this delay in problem solving that angered the railway undertakings. “I did understand that after heavy snow there were some disruptions, but the slow response and lack of priority for an important sector at such a crucial line, that was something I could not understand”, said Jolanda Plomp, CEO of LTE.

What first, what next?

Van den Bosch understands those emotions. At the same time, the Harbour Line is not prioritised over the other parts of the network, all get equal attention, she said. The contingency plan they are now developing deals with questions as ‘what should go first, which lines should be guaranteed’, she explains.

“There are certain energy and production plants where supply must go on. These are things that must be solved first, in case of a disruption. We did not have such a plan in place. We are developing this with the railway undertakings together. We want to hear from them what they find important.”

History repeats itself

Ironically, the WIRA switch was developed in the context of a similar situation. It was designed after the problems caused on the railways during the winter of 2012 and winters before that. In 2012, the entire Dutch railway network came to a standstill due to heavy snowfall.

After considerable criticism from the Dutch Lower House, ProRail, NS and the then Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, presented a package of measures in that same year to make the railways more resistant to winter weather. For instance, they introduced a winter timetable in expected snowfall cases to prevent a ‘snowball effect’ of disruptions. Yet, the snow storm of early 2020 managed to strike the infrastructure manager with surprise.

Working hard

“It is only afterwards that we can say that what we did was not enough”, said van den Bosch in the show. “The Harbour Line is a priority for us, and we are working very hard to see what we can do better next time.”

Part of these efforts are also the opening up of Waalhaven South for dangerous goods. Rail freight operators have been restricted to shunt wagons with dangerous goods at the emplacement yard since 13 September 2019. In the last week of March ProRail has an exam, to show fire safety authorities that the site is safe. “If this exam is passed, Waalhaven South will be opened up again for dangerous goods operators per 1 April”, said van den Bosch. If ProRail fails the exam, there is no definite date for the re-opening.

Author: Majorie van Leijen

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