Working on the Iarnród Éireann Network

Éamonn Ballance, Iarnród Éireann’s Chief Civil Engineer talks to Irish building magazine about maintaining and upgrading the rail network and the opportunities for contractors with upcoming infrastructure spending.

Iarnród Éireann comprises, in the main, of two distinct business entities: the Infrastructure Manager (IM) and the Railway Undertaking (RU). In addition, it is also the operator of Rosslare Europort. Éamonn Ballance works for the Infrastructure Manager which is responsible for providing the infrastructure for the trains to run on. The RU operates the trains. Companies can apply to Iarnród Éireann to run trains on the network. In Ireland there are currently four Railway Undertakings. Iarnród Éireann is by far the largest of these; Translink and the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland are the smaller operators, and lastly the specialist plant contractor Rhomberg Sersa, who provides rail borne mechanical maintenance services to the Infrastructure Manager.

Éamonn is a Chartered Civil Engineer and Fellow of Engineers Ireland and holds an MBA from the University of Limerick. He joined the railway industry as an apprentice in the late 1970s and has worked at various levels in rail infrastructure enhancement, renewal and maintenance since. Éamonn reports to Don Cunningham, the Director of the Infrastructure Manager. In 2019, the Infrastructure Manager’s budget was just short of €300m for railway maintenance activities. Of this, Éamonn’s track, civils and buildings asset management department has a budget of approximately €170m.


Éamonn Ballance, Iarnród Éireann’s Chief Civil Engineer

Éamonn is based in Inchicore and, as Chief Civil Engineer (CCE), has a team of nine people reporting directly to him. Three managers, located at Limerick Junction, Athlone, and Dublin are responsible for the physical works associated with track and civil engineering infrastructure maintenance. In addition, another reporting manager has teams located strategically around the country charged with asset inspection, to verify that assets (bridges, embankments, coast defence works etc.) are to standard. In addition, they identify works that are required to ensure that they remain to standard and safely operational. Éamonn has a manager with a team looking after the maintenance of the 144 railway stations as well as over 1,000 buildings such as level-crossing cottages and operational facilities, another is charged with the inspection and maintenance of mechanical and electrical systems such as lifts and escalators. The CCE department has a depot in Portlaoise that currently manufactures all of the concrete railway sleepers used on the network as well as preparing rails and other components for use on the network. This facility is controlled by one of Éamonn’s reporting managers. An in-house safety professional ensures all activities are carried out in a safe and compliant manner. The CCE department is ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 accredited. In total, out of Iarnród Éireann’s 3,800 employees, 700 people work in Éamonn’s department.


Éamonn tells us about the work required in maintenance and upgrading: the track renewal, upkeep of stations, bridges – the hard infrastructure. “There is 2,500km of track that needs to be maintained, 5,200 bridges, 1,000 level-crossings, and 144 stations, approximately 370 platforms.” Éamonn’s job is to oversee the maintenance of this infrastructure to a safe and serviceable standard. The budget for this work in 2020 will be of the order of €170m.

As with all assets, maintenance is an ongoing activity. The Dublin to Cork route is the company’s flagship route and there is ongoing work here. “There is ongoing ballast remediation on the Dublin to Cork line since 2015. 20 to 25 miles of track formation renewal has been undertaken each year.” The ballast from under the track is taken away and new ballast is put in. This is undertaken using a large machine called a ballast cleaner. This project will continue over the coming years. There is also an upcoming track renewal project being undertaken on the Cork line including the replacing of rail and sleepers as well as drainage renewal and geometric improvements to facilitate faster and smoother running. This renewal project is estimated to cost €250m, funding for phase one in the order €180m has been already secured Éamonn says. “This work will start next year with 25 miles of track being relayed that year. The subsequent years will see 40 to 50 miles being relayed. It costs approximately €1m per mile to relay track to modern standards.” 

Éamonn describes the procurement of rail and sleepers, interestingly, as mentioned earlier, Iarnród Éireann casts its own concrete sleepers in a casting yard in Portlaoise. “There is a logistical process for delivering sleepers and rail to site by train. The company purchases rail following a procurement process advertised in the OJEU and awards contracts to the likes of British Steel. The current supplier is a Spanish company called Arcelor Mittal based in Gijón in northern Spain. These rails are shipped into Ireland in 36m lengths, brought by rail from the seaport to the Portlaoise Depot where they are ‘flash butt’ welded together and are routinely delivered to site by special trains in lengths of up to 144m.”

Other assets, including bridges, require inspection and maintenance. Every bridge is examined every 2 years at a minimum. Works can arise from these inspections. Inspections are also carried out on embankments and level-crossings. Upgrading and maintaining points and crossings requires the utilisation of highly skilled multi-disciplinary teams to verify that these safety critical assets are kept within millimetre tolerances.

Éamonn tells us about the fleet of vehicles required to maintain the track. “Iarnród Éireann owns its own fleet of maintenance machines: tampers, regulators, ballast cleaners, etc. Iarnród Éireann has contracted with Rhomberg Sersa Ireland Ltd (an Irish Registered subsidiary of the Austrian company) to maintain and operate this fleet. Only entities that are licensed by the Commission for Rail Regulation (CRR) and designated a Railway Undertaking (RU) can operate rail vehicles on the Iarnród Éireann operational network. As part of the tender evaluation process to maintain and operate the Iarnród Éireann maintenance fleet Rhomberg Sersa had to demonstrate that it was properly set to obtain such a licence.

Road-rail vehicles (RRVs) are the major improvement that Éamonn has seen on rail work. “In the past 20 years RRVs have transformed the efficiency of maintenance work.” RRV plant that is used on the network must also be certified by accredited bodies. There is a lower standard required for RRVs as they only operate in “track possessions” that is when the tracks are taken out of use for normal traffic for maintenance activities. “Having said that, rigorous testing is carried out on the safety and functionality of the machines and the machine operators themselves require railway specific training and certification,” Éamonn adds.

Work is often undertaken at night to avoid disruption. “Iarnród Éireann and contractor teams mainly work at night in the DART and suburban areas. This work can involve track bed maintenance, changing rails, renewing cross-overs and major items of infrastructure such as bridges. As part of the ongoing ballast cleaning project on the Cork line, a site would generally start work on Friday night and carry on until Sunday continuously working on one line and keeping the other line open, allowing the trains run. All these works are planned at least a year in advance.

A lot of work was planned for and successfully completed on the 2019 October Bank Holiday weekend, including Bray Head coast protection works. These works were tendered and a contractor (Triur Construction from Galway) was employed to assist on this project. A large concrete rampart was installed in sections, to defend the coast from the sea. In addition, bridges were renewed, ballast cleaning and track renewal was carried out, the level-crossing surface at Merrion Gates was renewed (along with the track), yard works were carried out at Galway Station and works associated with the renewal of the Victorian era roof at Pearse Station were progressed. Bank Holidays are traditionally a busy time for railway infrastructure maintainers as the rush to get trains running in time for the busy commuter service on Mondays usually means only short work slots are available – the running of curtailed services on Bank Holiday Mondays allows more time for works.

There is a significant upgrading project upcoming. “In the future Iarnród Éireann is looking at a substantial spend in the expansion of the DART. €2bn will be spent in the coming years expanding the DART to Maynooth, Drogheda, and Hazelhatch. Outside of this, the ongoing maintenance and upgrading of the rail network is a significant annual spend.”


Iarnród Éireann procurement is undertaken under EU Directives and the company employs contractors in a number of ways. The Civil Engineering Frameworks range from €0 to €100,000; €100,000 to €5m and €5m plus. “Framework contractors are employed to supply the company with labour, plant, and various maintenance services. For example, in the case of labour, in-house gangs working at night are assisted by contractors. A six-man gang could be accompanied by six additional operatives from a ‘labour only’ contractor. There would generally be 8 to 10 such labour contracting companies on a labour framework. Every 4 to 5 years there is a framework pre-qualification process and the framework refreshed. To get on this there are a few criteria: size, structure, experience, turnover, safety record, etc.”

From the framework Iarnród Éireann run mini-tenders. “We might tender for and award contracts as long as 1 year or short 2 to 3 week contracts depending on the upcoming projects. These frameworks are used for labour contractors, under the same tendering process we may bring in specialist services contractors and these have to have a Personal Track Safety (PTS) course completed. We provide the course at our Training School in Inchicore. This and a Safe Pass are required to work on the track. Aside from labour, plant services frameworks are required and these include road-rail vehicles (RRVs).”

RRVs are critical to the work and only operate when the trains are not running on that line. Iarnród Éireann has about 10 contractors that supply the company with RRVs. “Overall there is a fleet of 500 or more vehicles, including dumpers, 360-degree diggers, and a milling machine. We have similar requirements for plant as for labour, with the addition of the requirement for the Road-Rail Vehicle Operative (RRVO) course.”

There is another suite of frameworks for bigger contractors for large-scale work, €5m plus. Many of the major contractors in Ireland are on Iarnród Éireann’s frameworks he says. Aside from significant contract sums, there are a lot of small works. “On the lower end of spending, separately we have the Building and Maintenance Division with few direct operatives employed, personnel are brought in from companies to undertake cyclical works, such as weeding the platforms/carparks and minor maintenance works.”

There have been major projects undertaken by the company in the past decade. The four-tracking of 7 miles of the Cork line on the approaches to Heuston station being notable. €1m or €2m projects are undertaken regularly but Éamonn says these do not get much media attention. An example, in 2015, the bridge over the Awbeg River near Mallow was a major undertaking. “This was done over a weekend. The two span bridge was old and needed replacement, this was done by replacing it with a box culvert. This project was undertaken by Coffey Group over a single weekend.”

Next year’s Cork line rehabilitation project will renew the rail, sleepers, drainage. The rails were laid in the 1970s/80s he tells us. “These are in reasonable condition but nearing the end of their economic life, now is the time for replacement. Modern concrete sleepers are more robust and heavier and will give many decades of service. A ballast replacement will also be undertaken simultaneously.” There is a corporate goal of achieving 75 million passenger journeys by the year 2025. In 2018 the operator had 47.9 million passenger journeys, the highest number ever recorded and numbers are expected to hit 50 million this year. “Investment in systems and rolling stock is well underway to achieve this end,” he explains. “The Cork line rehabilitation project is our contribution to this target – we will end up with a more reliable and faster track infrastructure to the benefit of the traveling public.”

Coastal protection works are also on the horizon and will be undertaken over the next few years. Work is currently at the design stage. €1m to €2m per year is spent on coastal protection. As part of ongoing asset monitoring, Iarnród Éireann has noticed increased rates of erosion along the east coast and this may be associated with climate change. “Action must be taken to preserve the railway and the coast and this will require significant work in the coming decade. We are currently engaged in a multi-agency study, assisted by ARUP consultants to develop a strategic action plan.” 

There is spending planned for other assets. There is a plan for the upgrade of lifts and escalators at stations across the country over the next 5 years. Iarnród Éireann has 140 such facilities in stations. A survey and action plan has been developed and design and procurement will commence in 2020. Iarnród Éireann spends about €5m a year on fencing to prevent animals from accessing the track. This budget increased in recent years due to deer strikes.

In the next 4 to 5 years, Iarnród Éireann plans a roll out of an electronic decision support system on user worked level-crossings, of which there are just under 1,000 on the network. In summary, this will assist crossing users to safely cross by indicating with a colour light system if a train is approaching. This is being done in conjunction with Schweizer Electronic a Swiss consultant/contractor and its local agent, KN Networks who will undertake the level-crossing installations.

Aside from significant upcoming projects, day-to-day works continue, going on at night maintaining the railway using RRVs and tampers; plus bridges are regularly renewed.

All Iarnród Éireann work needs to be measured and planned, and technological advancements have brought great efficiencies. Iarnród Éireann has established links to other network administrators, such as Network Rail, Austria’s OBB and Switzerland’s SBB. “We adopt processes and technologies that we see are successful abroad for doing work effectively and more cost-efficiently.”

The surveying, planning, and undertaking of work in providing the railway network is fascinating and should be considered when taking a train.

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