Track inspection – beyond the basics

11 December 2018

How does a rail operator effectively manage track infrastructure so that it: performs its operational, business and functional requirements; is fit for purpose; and is compliant with rail safety legislation?

Each rail operator has a different mix of operational requirements and a unique risk profile. When establishing that profile, a rail operator should consider the frequency of trains, the quality of track, the quality of the fastenings, the quality of the sleepers, whether the track has degraded, the overall track geometry, the track gradient – for starters.

Each operator needs to assess and understand its unique risk profile. Railway operations may include high bridges, high traffic volumes, infrequent services, old life expired infrastructure, tight clearances, lack of staff resources, high staff turnover, infrequent staff training among other things. It’s up to the rail operator to identify the key risks to its operations.

Individual asset maintenance managers will address track maintenance in slightly different ways with an emphasis on their own risk profile. Although there are many common elements, one size does not fit all.

Rail safety legislation requires rail operators to:

  • Undertake a risk assessment and define track infrastructure safety risks
  • Define standards to maintain the infrastructure and manage the safety risks SFAIP
  • Document infrastructure tolerances to ensure infrastructure does not deteriorate outside the above standards
  • Inspect the infrastructure and record results to demonstrated compliance to the standards and tolerances.

Infrastructure maintenance schedules, inspection frequencies and tolerances are closely matched to the rail operator’s unique risk profile, quality of the infrastructure, rate of infrastructure deterioration and the types of services the rail operator wants to provide.

The rate of deterioration of the infrastructure dictates the frequency and level of detail of infrastructure inspections. It must be inspected at a frequency that ensures any deterioration in the infrastructure does not exceed the maintenance tolerances or threaten the safety of train operations prior to the next planned inspection cycle.

As infrastructure condition deteriorates and it approaches it’s condemning limits, infrastructure inspections must be more frequent and more detailed. Take for instance a new track with new sleepers. After checking for movement in the track at predefined points over a period of several inspection cycles, as the track is in such good condition the track inspector may decide that inspections may be planned less frequently or in less detail.

Note that ‘less frequent inspections’ still means that some inspections are undertaken and some measurements are taken.

On the other hand, tourist and heritage railways may have limited resources. They may use second hand sleepers, second hand fasteners, the track may be worn, or the formation degraded and the volunteer track inspector might decide inspections need to be more frequent and more detailed.

As the Tourist and Heritage infrastructure approaches its condemning limit, the track infrastructure inspections may need to be increased substantially. Potentially, this may mean as frequently as prior to each day’s service.

Again, the details and measurements contained in the infrastructure inspections will provide the documented record that the frequency of inspections and the detail contained in the inspections is appropriate for the safety risk.

The rail operator will be able to demonstrate the infrastructure is being safely maintained so far as is reasonably practicable.

Train tracks


This article was created for Rail Safety News (RSN). Subscribe to Rail Safety News

RSN is produced by Rail Safety Victoria (RSV), a branch of Transport Safety Victoria (TSV), to help develop a strong safety culture in the tourist and heritage railway sector. Twice a year (June and December), we write technical articles and source case studies – highlighting local and international expertise and experience – to help inform safe rail operations as required under rail safety legislation.