UK Network Rail study to assess impact of climate change

2/7/2010 Guardian  The Network Rail study on climate change could save the industry £1bn over the next 30 years.Potential safety threats to thousands of miles of railway from extreme storms, floods and heatwaves as the
impact of climate change worsens are being investigated by railway engineers and
A study by Network Rail will look at exposed coastal tracks, embankments and
thousands of bridges to see whether they can withstand the increase in extreme
weather events that climatologists have predicted over coming decades.
The UK-wide investigation will cost £750,000 but railway executives believe that
implementing its expected recommendations could save the industry £1bn over the
next 30 years by improving safety and preventing emergencies.
The climate change adaptation programme, commissioned by the rail industry
safety board (RSSB) follows the intense storm that flooded the south coast line
bordering the sea at Dawlish in Devon in 2004, and a series of problems with
buckled rails during heatwaves.
At Dawlish, the waves breached a sea wall designed to withstand a severe “one in
a hundred years” storm. An official investigation predicted that by 2080 these
very severe storms could occur as often as once every 14 years, with the
incidence of waves breaking over the sea wall increasing by at least 6,000% by
then, raising serious doubts about the line’s future.
John Dora, Network Rail’s principal engineer for climate change, said the review
was designed to identify “what we can do in the long term to make the rail
network more robust”.
The project will look at 150 miles of vulnerable coastal lines. It will study
the risk of flooding and landslides for about 9,000 miles of cuttings and
embankments alongside lines, and the ability of 4,500 bridges that span rivers
and estuaries to withstand floods.
Network Rail engineers believe as many as 10% of those bridges may need
strengthening. Much of the rail network is Victorian, and tracks were laid
alongside rivers and coasts, and built through cuttings and on earthworks,
because early locomotives needed the lowest gradients possible.
The potential threat was underlined by last November’s Cumbrian floods, when six
road bridges around Cockermouth collapsed – in one case, killing a policeman.
Last month, 60 train passengers narrowly escaped serious injury after a rock
fall derailed a train near Oban, in Scotland.
More intense and frequent heatwaves increase the threat of lines buckling,
leading to cancellations and disrupting maintenance schedules, while high winds
can affect overhead power lines. Storms also increase the risks of debris
blowing on to tracks or damaging power lines.
Industry executives say climate change and rising fuel prices will present the
rail network with a paradox: passenger numbers and services are expected to
increase sharply as travellers switch from using cars and short-haul flights.
Yet, at the same time, the risks of climate-related disruptions are expected to
Network Rail stresses that the UK’s rail system is already robust, and has been
“future-proofed” to cope with current weather conditions. After an earlier
programme to investigate flood risks, the company is spending £160m on improving
drainage systems and has been fitting higher-standard rails able to cope with
warmer temperatures.
The new review will involve designing modelling tools with the Met Office to
predict what severe weather events might take place and which lines are most at
risk. New flood maps will be produced using laser-based technology.
Dora said Network Rail had been re-examining all its embankments and slopes
since 2000, adding that it was difficult to predict how much the extra remedial
work might cost until the review was completed. The final report is expected in
February or March next year.
“Erosion around the coast is a problem, sea level rise is a problem and
increased storminess with waves crashing over the coast can be a problem. With
many things like that there are technical, engineering solutions that can be put
in place which can mitigate against them,” he said.
“The railway is very good at learning from history and very good at
prioritising, and with the technology out there just now in research, and
looking at innovation, I personally see the railway becoming very smart at
targeting its activity at these high-risk areas.”
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