Many more passengers travel every day on the rail network than any survey or statistic can possibly account for.
That’s because the railway acts as a creature super-highway across the country, creating a vital path for species to move between the patchwork of different habitats spread across the British countryside. Mammals, birds, reptiles, invertebrates and amphibians are the ultimate fare dodgers.
Vegetation along the line is a perennial problem for the railway (if it’s not growing under the tracks, it’s falling on top of them). But when it’s home to such a menagerie, a whole new problem appears on those occasions when the railway is being upgraded or enhanced.
Many of the species that live in the greenery near the railway are protected by either European or national legislation (or both in some cases). Great crested newts, badgers and bats are among those protected, and although each species differs in the exact legislation, in general it is an offence to disturb, injure, kill, take or transport them. And you can’t damage or destroy their resting or breeding sites either. Basically, do not touch!
High-profile projects such as the Great Western Main Line electrification have fallen foul to such difficulties - here, populations of great crested newts (protected by European legislation) were unexpectedly discovered during routine work. Elsewhere, rebuild work on Ilkeston station in Derbyshire has been delayed more than once because newts kept moving back in to the site.
Surely the first question is: how do these problems occur, when developers pay thousands of pounds for an ecological survey to determine whether they are likely to encounter exactly this kind of issue?
Simple - creatures move around. Some bats travel more than 6.2 miles (10km) in a single night, and even reptiles and amphibians can make it a tenth of that distance from their breeding sites.
The reality is that ecological surveys can only record the conditions at the time the survey is undertaken. A survey may have been completed up to two years before the start of a project, and most large infrastructure projects span several years - species can have moved a long way since the survey.
The standard approach when protected species are recorded on a site survey is to apply the mitigation hierarchy. In the first instance, this aims to avoid any negative impact occurring on the species. If this can’t be avoided, then they must be mitigated for. And finally, if that isn’t possible either, they must be compensated for.
Where there is no possibility of avoiding disturbance of the species, a protected species mitigation licence is required from the relevant government body. This allows the species to be moved or disturbed in some way.
However, the trouble with these types of licences is that they can take up to a year to obtain. It takes time to complete the necessary surveys, compile the application and wait for it to be accepted.
When a project is already under way, and workers unexpectedly come across a colony of great crested newts, just one encounter can be a massive headache. All work on the project must cease until the relevant licence is obtained.
The scope of the licence makes the situation even worse, because it only covers those areas of a site where protected species have been recorded. On a project such as the Midland Main Line electrification (which is over 125 miles long), there can be sections of many miles where no disturbance can take place. So if a newt has wandered into an unlicensed zone, all work must stop in that area until the scope of the licence is amended to compensate.
Given the level of disruption that could result to such a large project as the MML electrification, ecologists at Atkins came up with an innovative solution. Working with Natural England (the relevant government body for the area), Network Rail and Carillion, they were granted the first ever project-wide mitigation licence for great crested newts.… and then another for badgers.
“The project-wide licence essentially allows a developer or contractor to implement mitigation for protected species where required as they are encountered during the construction of a scheme,” Atkins Principal Ecologist Matt Oakley tells RAIL.
The MML licence covered the entire footprint of the first phase of the scheme between Bedford and Kettering (a distance of about 25 miles). Mitigation could take place along the entirety of the section, regardless of whether or not the species has been recorded in the area.
Says Oakley: “For a species such as badgers, which can excavate new setts at any time, or for which previously unrecorded setts can be found once vegetation is cleared, the setts can be disturbed or closed under the licence as soon as required, rather than having to halt works and apply for a new licence or amend an existing licence.
“Although great crested newts typically travel no further than 500 metres from their breeding ponds, they have been known to travel a kilometre or more, making it possible for them to be encountered in areas both where they weren’t expected to be and where a standard mitigation licence would not cover. The project-wide licence addresses both of these situations and would allow great crested newts to be moved when they are encountered.”
The project-wide licence also allowed for the species to be moved during typically non-licensable periods (when they are breeding or hibernating).
Delays to the project are therefore minimal, and the costs incurred from ‘false starts’ to work are greatly reduced. It was estimated that the cost of halting foundation installations for overhead line equipment gantries on the MML project if protected species were encountered would have been £10,000 to £20,000 per night.
As these new licences are a new approach, Oakley says it’s too early to say how they could be applied elsewhere: “Currently, the great crested newt and badger licences obtained for the Midland Main Line scheme provide a new mechanism for controlling the impact these species can have on the scheme, where high-volume works such as OLE gantry installation and cable renewals take place over many kilometres of railway track and its associated vegetated embankments.”
Atkins and Natural England agreed in principle, however, that the project-wide licence could be applied to any protected species where mitigation licences are issued (bats, for example), so the possibilities to avoid major delays on other big projects are clear.
In future, opportunities to blame project delays on unsuspecting amphibians could be few and far between!
- This feature was published in RAIL 798 on April 13 2016.