Climate change is a global phenomenon that poses significant challenges to various sectors, including transportation infrastructure. Rail systems, which play a vital role in the movement of people and goods, are not immune to the impacts of global warming. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events and sea-level rise can all affect rail infrastructure and disrupt its operations.
In response to these challenges, rail operators around the world are implementing various mitigation efforts to safeguard rail systems and ensure their resilience in the face of climate change. Recognising the need to implement solutions that can deal with adverse weather events today and in the future to prevent further damage to rail infrastructure, improve rail safety and to mitigate rail service disruptions.
In the Network Rail Third Adaptation Report 2021 , they outline their strategies and plans to meet their vision for a weather and climate resilient railway. Including having an infrastructure that is able to withstand the impact of future weather conditions and the ability to rapidly recover from the impacts of adverse and extreme weather events.
Impact of Global Warming on Global Rail Infrastructure
Global warming has several direct and indirect effects on rail infrastructure. Some of the key impacts include:
- Extreme Weather Events: Climate change has led to an increase in extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, storms and heavy rainfall. These events can cause flooding, landslides and infrastructure damage, resulting in disrupted rail services or in the worst case train derailments or other major safety incidents.
- Rising Sea Levels: As global temperatures rise; the melting of polar ice caps contributes to rising sea levels. Coastal rail lines are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise, leading to increased risks of erosion, saltwater intrusion and damage to track beds and bridges.
- Temperature Extremes: Rail infrastructure is designed to operate within specific temperature ranges. However, rising temperatures can lead to heatwaves, causing tracks to expand, buckle or warp. High temperatures can also affect electrical systems, signalling equipment and overhead power lines, which can all impact rail services.
To mitigate the impacts of climate change on rail infrastructure, various measures are being implemented worldwide. These include:
- Infrastructure Resilience: Enhancing the resilience of rail infrastructure involves incorporating climate change considerations into planning, design, and construction practices. This includes elevating tracks, reinforcing embankments and strengthening bridges to withstand extreme weather events and rising sea levels.
- Vegetation Management: Vegetation near rail tracks can cause issues, such as leaves falling on tracks, leading to reduced traction and slippery conditions. Implementing vegetation management strategies helps prevent these issues and reduces the risk of wildfires, another climate change-related concern.
- Monitoring and Early Warning Systems: Implementing advanced monitoring technologies and early warning systems enables prompt detection of infrastructure vulnerabilities, such as track deformation, erosion or flood risks. This allows for timely maintenance and proactive measures to minimise disruptions.TrackWater® from RailSense is a sensor and data-driven product designed to reduce the incidence of flooding on the rail network and improve safety for passengers and operatives. Utilising technologies pioneered on the highways. TrackWater was developed through a consortium including Network Rail, Lancaster University and Connected Places Catapult. It was co-funded by the Department of Transport and Innovate UK.The TrackWater technology has now been adapted to meet the need to manage surface water within rail and reduce the impact of flooding on the network and is Network Rail approved.
- Renewable Energy Integration: Rail systems around the world are increasingly integrating renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. This helps lower greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the contribution of rail operations to climate change.
Regional Challenges and Approaches
Different regions face specific challenges in dealing with the impact of climate change on rail infrastructure.
- North America faces challenges such as increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes, heatwaves and wildfires. Efforts are being made to reinforce vulnerable infrastructure, enhance drainage systems and develop climate-resilient designs for new rail projects.
- Asia experiences diverse climate conditions, from typhoons and monsoons to extreme heat and sea-level rise. Adaptation measures in the region include the construction of elevated tracks, flood-resistant designs and the use of innovative materials to withstand extreme weather events.
- Europe is tackling climate change impacts through a combination of adaptation and mitigation strategies. Initiatives include the integration of renewable energy, improvements in energy efficiency, and the development of climate-resilient railway networks and maintenance practices.
RailSense offers a range of products that can help improve the climate resilience of rail infrastructure and help mitigate the risks of climate change to rail assets, including:
VoidSense®, a technology that senses voids and under-track movement. By continuously monitoring the stability of tracks, it helps identify potential track bed issues that could compromise rail safety.
With TempSense®, rail operators can track critical rail temperature (CRT) in real-time, allowing them to take necessary precautions in extreme weather conditions.
BuckleSense® is designed to detect possible hot-weather buckle occurrences, which can cause severe accidents if not addressed promptly.
UK: Areas at Risk of Climate Change Impact on Rail Infrastructure
In the United Kingdom, certain areas are particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change on rail infrastructure. These areas include:
- Coastal Regions: Low-lying coastal regions, such as East Anglia, the South West and parts of Scotland, face risks from rising sea levels, storm surges and coastal erosion. Vulnerabilities in these areas require additional measures to protect rail infrastructure and maintain reliable services.
- Flood-Prone Areas: Parts of the UK, including the Thames Valley and areas near major rivers, are prone to flooding. Flooding can damage tracks, disrupt signalling systems and cause landslides. Implementing flood management strategies and resilient designs are crucial in these areas.
- Urban Centres: Urban areas with high population densities, such as London and other major cities, face challenges associated with urban heat islands and increased demand for transportation. Green infrastructure initiatives, such as tree planting and cool pavement installations, help mitigate the urban heat island effect and enhance passenger comfort.
Climate change poses significant risks to global rail infrastructure, necessitating proactive measures to enhance resilience and minimise disruptions. The impacts of global warming on rail systems vary across regions, but efforts to mitigate these impacts include infrastructure resilience, vegetation management, monitoring systems and renewable energy integration.
In the UK, coastal regions, flood-prone areas, and urban centres are particularly at risk, requiring targeted strategies to safeguard rail infrastructure and ensure reliable services in the face of climate change. By understanding these challenges and implementing effective mitigation efforts, the global rail industry can adapt to the changing climate, improve rail safety and continue to provide vital transportation services for people and freight.