Railway bridge strikes

Bridge strikes – vehicles colliding with railway bearing or over-track bridges – are a significant issue. After being struck, bridge and track checks are required before trains can re-use the line. This often causes costly delays and disruptions to passengers and train operating companies (TOCs), structural repair requirements for rail authorities and potential fatalities for drivers and road users.

Minor bridge strikes might result in major claims
Over the past few years, there have been several legal cases and decisions on the matter. Following these, the Courts have made it clear that where a negligent motorist causes damage, Network Rail can recover from negligent parties compensation to cover the amount it is contractually obliged to pay TOCs.

Conarken v Network Rail
In 2011, the Court of Appeal considered this case. Damage caused to a Network Rail bridge by a negligent motorist meant the track across the bridge was temporarily closed. Network Rail was contractually obliged to compensate the TOCs for the resultant financial loss due to schedule disruption. The compensation amount was calculated using a formula detailed in the ‘track access agreements’ between Network Rail and TOCs.

Network Rail brought a claim against the negligent motorist. The motorist denied liability to pay Network Rail damages for the disruption compensation, arguing it was pure economic loss and therefore not recoverable. The Court of Appeal disagreed, finding that the loss of income following damage to revenue generating property is a recoverable loss. The measure of damages depends on what is reasonable. In this instance, the Court found that the formula contained in the agreements was reasonable. The claim therefore succeeded.

Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd v Handy
The decision in Conarken was further confirmed in this similar case, reiterating that Network Rail can recover from negligent parties the compensation that it is contractually obliged to pay to TOCs.

Consequences in Practice
The outcome for fleet operators and motor insurers can therefore be significant. Where a bridge strike has occurred, Network Rail will need to assess the extent of it and undertake repairs, probably necessitating line closures. When that happens, the cost of the claim can be disproportionate to the damage caused.

Here are two examples:

  1. Mercedes Sprinter impacted with a bridge. Cost of repairs totalled £2,937. The claim for disruption was £283,747.
  2. A DAF 18T Tipper hit a bridge. Repairs totalled £6,542. The claim for disruption was £149,408.

Preventative Action
There is no one solution to address and prevent bridge strikes but it is important to increase driver awareness and understanding of the issue. For example, there is no legislation on the height of permissible vehicles on UK roads, so careful route planning is needed to avoid low bridges and other overhead structures such as cables, walkways and pipelines.

Other actions that can be taken include:

  • All vehicles and any drawn trailer, which has a maximum height of more than three metres (ten feet), must have a visual warning device. The visual warning device will alert the driver when the vehicle approaches an obstruction such as a low bridge.
  • All double and triple-decker transporters must be fitted with an electronic low height-warning device and there are a number of devices available on the market.

For transport managers and professional drivers, the Department for Transport (DfT) has developed a series of good practice guides, in conjunction with freight and passenger transport industry bodies. These are designed to raise the awareness of the risks and consequences of bridge strikes. They also give guidance on how they can be prevented.

This article originally appeared on Allianz.