11th April 2023

Bridges Lie Over Troubled Waters

Every day in the UK, five rail bridges, on average, are struck by vehicles or loads too tall to pass under them1. The cost to the UK taxpayer is a staggering £23m a year2, but the ultimate cost to a fleet operator could also be significant.

In recent years, Network Rail has been granted the right to claim back costs from firms whose driver hit a bridge. On average, these are £13,000 per bridge strike, and rail operators may also seek to recoup costs for operations disruption.

Bridge strikes are now also reported to the Office of the Traffic Commissioner, for potential regulatory action against the fleet operator involved. This could involve significant legal expenses and time, in addition to possible fines and operator licence restrictions.

However, not only the physical property of Network Rail can be affected. A bridge strike can lead to the vehicle’s top being sliced off, if the driver is unaware of the vehicle’s height, causing debris to potentially harm members of the public, and the driver, also general damage to the vehicle in less dramatic incidents.

In 2019, a Swansea bus bridge strike led to numerous injuries, a fatality and, ultimately, the driver’s imprisonment3.

Any load being carried can also be damaged, causing potential losses of contracts. Then there is the impact on insurance premiums. Motor-related insurance claims are soaring, due to heavy increases in the cost of vehicle parts, a scarcity of key components, the conflict in Ukraine and labour costs, so any vehicle repairs will likely be costly and typically lengthy.

Forty-three per cent of lorry drivers admit to not measuring their vehicle before heading out on the road, and fifty-two per cent admit to not taking low bridges into account. Neither omission may be a point of law, but common sense seems to be at a premium when it comes to avoiding the most public of embarrassments behind the wheel4. It is essential that fleet managers ensure they do both of these. Routes need to be better planned and ordinary sat navs abandoned for ones that can flag up low bridges. Driver awareness of differing loads needs to be raised, so they think about both the flatbed and what sits atop. Measuring poles can be provided to drivers, but they should also use their eyes to locate triangular and circular low bridge warning signs, especially if their route is changed.

Above all, they must realise ‘hit and runs’ are not an option. All bridge strikes must be reported, using the contact details given on the bridge, either by calling the police or the Network Rail emergency line. Drivers have no idea what damage has been caused to the tracks above and any train derailment could be disastrous.

Use the tools Network Rail provides for the prevention of bridge strikes5, as well as your due diligence, with regard to planning and educating drivers. Access your broker’s help, as part of your risk management strategy to keep your claims down, ensuring you have the right risk strategy to help mitigate when claims do occur. If you take no action, your business could be derailed.

1 https://www.networkrail.co.uk/running-the-railway/looking-after-the-railway/bridges-tunnels-and-viaducts/the-risk-of-bridge-strikes/ could be derailed.
2 https://www.networkrail.co.uk/communities/safety-in-the-community/railway-safety-campaigns/wise-up-size-up/
3 https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/bus-crash-bridge-driver-swansea-19682421
4 https://www.railfreight.com/railfreight/2022/11/25/half-of-uk-truck-drivers-unaware-of-vehicle-height-impacting-railways/?gdpr=accept
5 https://www.networkrail.co.uk/running-the-railway/looking-after-the-railway/bridges-tunnels-and-viaducts/the-risk-of-bridge-strikes/prevention-of-bridge-strikes/

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