A Bridge Too Far

Despite various campaigns by Network Rail and the Government, five vehicles a day are still striking bridges under which they are too tall to pass. December is one of the months in which the frequency of this problem is highest, with around 150 vehicles bridge strikes across its 31 days. Now, following some landmark cases, Network Rail is intending to claim back the full cost of a bridge strike, which should make any transport manager up their game and take control of this issue.

The average cost of each bridge strike is said to be £13,000 and Network Rail puts the annual cost to the UK taxpayer at £23m. The costs relate to examining and repairing a damaged bridge, inspecting and repairing surrounding road surfaces, recovering a vehicle and paying for any train delays.  This is in addition to any costs claimed by third parties whose property has been damaged.  Licence losses or other driving penalties could also be incurred.

Worryingly, 43% of lorry drivers admit to not measuring their vehicle before they drive it and 52% do not take low bridges along their route into account.   Having the right insurance in place, along with health and safety guidance for drivers, is essential.

Bridge strike incidents occur when a route has been badly planned and drivers do not take note of circular or triangular warning signs, which flag up that a low bridge is ahead.  Others happen because of diversions that have been set up following traffic incidents, or because of roadworks.  Notably, the police do not consider if a low bridge is situated along the route of a diversion, when setting one up. 

Sometimes, drivers are used to driving a single-deck vehicle not a double-decker or tall vehicle, or are carrying equipment, such as cranes, that are much higher than the vehicle itself.  Taking short-cuts, to keep on time with a schedule, is another reason for some bridge strikes and, with Christmas delivery pressures, doing this can be tempting.

Not all sat nav systems show low bridges, so it is vital for drivers’ routes to be carefully planned by office-based staff, using lorry atlases and other information databases.  Additionally, drivers need to be on-the-ball, aware of the dangers and alert when it comes to spotting warning signs. Each vehicle should have its height visually displayed within the cab, in a place where the driver can easily see it.

Driver training on this issue is essential, as is efficient route planning.  There should also be systems in place whereby a driver phones the office to check on new route restrictions, if a diversion is set up.  Procedures should also be written into health and safety policies.

Operators should also be aware that the law expects a driver to report a bridge strike to Network Rail immediately, using the contact details and bridge identification number on the plate attached to the damaged bridge. Drivers should always do this before contacting their transport manager.  Train derailments are a real possibility if a bridge is damaged, which means lives are at stake and every second counts. Hit and run bridge strikes are also unacceptable and will be heavily punished, if the driver is identified.

Network Rail is now notifying the Traffic Commissioners office as soon as a bridge strike occurs and the Traffic Commissioner is said to be “astonished” by the transport sector’s lack of effort in tackling this issue.  Operators need to get their house in order, as the authorities are now gaining additional powers and becoming less tolerant.

Guides in seven different languages are available for those employing foreign drivers. Training is also offered by industry schemes like FORS.  Take advantage of these and remember Network Rail’s message that ‘lorries can’t limbo’.  If you need help managing this aspect of your health and safety, call Gauntlet health and safety on 0113 244 8686.