Construction work in any environment presents a number of challenges, both to client and contractor, but perhaps none more so than that undertaken on or near to operational rail infrastructure. Indeed working close to electrified track has not been without incident for the geotechnical sector, as the 2003 collapsed piling rig on a Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) site demonstrated.

In fact, it’s the desire of the rail company to maintain vital rail links during work that presents the biggest challenge and demands the most rigorous planning, including risk assessments by both client and piling contractor. Of course ‘belt and braces’ solutions immediately following the CTRL incident reassessed the site’s risk and subsequently enforced changes to working methods, such as the use of smaller and slower piling rigs. These changes not only bumped up costs, but also slowed down the piling process, neither of which are good for any party.

Safety of course is paramount, and while lines down are inconvenient and costly, a toppled rig in the path of a high-speed train has much greater implications. However, moving forward, undertaking piling adjacent to a running line had to be examined in its entirety to establish a new standard of working, which would include proper risk assessment and the implementation of procedures and practices that would eliminate the need for possessions, yet facilitate a smooth and cost-effective running of the project. In the short term this approach brought about decisions pertaining to working methods that were made on an individual basis, calling upon Network Rail’s engineers’ experience, which often varied.

A new standard for piling operations

What was required was a new standard that would encompass all piling operations adjacent to the operational railway, from general requirements – off-loading materials etc., through to the competency of personnel. Clearly this was an industry problem and the Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS), representing most of the major piling and geotechnical specialist contractors in the UK, had to get involved in some form. Network Rail recognised this too and worked in partnership with the FPS, acknowledging that any industry problem should be tackled collaboratively with the industry body to which the problem relates. More importantly, solutions offered can often have quite wide-reaching ramifications for the industry and the technical input of the FPS would ensure that any suggested changes to working were practical, with alternative solutions offered that in no way compromised the core aim of the highest levels of safety.

As an industry body representing the vast proportion of its industry, the FPS could ensure that the solution or ‘new standard’ would work for the whole piling sector, without bias, as well as the wider construction industry, and just as importantly the general public, who want to feel satisfied when they travel by train that work done and seen from their passing window is carried out in a safe and controlled manner.

Independent audit

NR/L3/INI/CP0063, as the standard is now known became mandatory on the 5th June 2010 and defines a consistent approach to piling adjacent to the running line, describing all elements of working, including risk and hazard management, through to the required competency of all personnel involved in the piling works and associated activities. However, competency is a qualitative as well as a quantitative variable and is open to wide interpretation, and this is where the FPS is able to add value and reassurance through its membership process. Membership of the FPS is conditional on an applicant company passing a thorough and independent audit, which aims to define, through assessment, the standards a member meets and as this audit is repeated every three years, ensures standards are at least maintained, if not bettered.

The audit, as well as ensuring standards, establishes a frame of reference for individual members as it scores key business elements such as health and safety or how committed they are to training, and relates them to what are considered the highest reference points. Establishing these points against other FPS peers is a great way of motivating companies to strive for continuous improvement of standards and suggests, without naming, how a company might improve on an area it has been marked down on by recommending schemes or initiatives that have benefited other companies. For example, training, which is a key influencer on competency, forms an important part of the audit process and is something the FPS is always keen to promote amongst its members. Repeating the audit ensures that scores and benchmarks are not static, as well as making sure that member companies do not become complacent.

FPS membership on the rise

Although members are real-world competitors, they unanimously support the promotion of best practice and this was seen during the process of establishing the Network Rail standard. Here, members set aside their competitive differences to come together and work on an issue that would benefit the piling and wider geotechnical sector, as well as the construction industry as a whole, especially with regards to health and safety and best working practice.

With the arrival of Crossrail, many of our members have been involved in projects at varying levels, and FPS membership will go some way to differentiating them in tenders, as well as reinforcing their competence. This imparts confidence to clients that an FPS member will undertake the job safely and successfully. In fact, FPS membership is increasingly being requested by clients which has led to a recent rise in membership figures. This can only be a good thing if we as an industry wish to see standards continually improve.

It’s been a hard few years for all areas of construction and of course this has led to cost-cutting, which in turn has put pressure on standards.

However, a growing membership in these difficult times is proof positive that FPS members are not prepared to compromise on these issues and still rate standards and quality as core values and important in the effort to win work. This in turn can only be good news for the rail industry and the piling contractors it wishes to work with.

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