Earlier last month, the UK experienced two storms in just over two weeks causing widespread disruption across the railway. First came Storm Babet, an intense extratropical cyclone that affected large parts of northern and western Europe, followed swiftly by Storm Ciarán causing flooding in southern parts of England.
Rail infrastructure suffered from the heavy flooding and rail operators were forced to close several routes and lines as the ground and drains around the track struggled to absorb more water1. Speed restrictions were put in place for safety because of the threat of damage from high winds which can blow trees and other large objects like trampolines and even sheds onto the track and cause damage to the overhead wires that power electric trains.
The Cabinet Office’s National Risk Register, states that climate change has already altered the risk of certain types of extreme weather in the UK, with evidence suggesting that the frequency and intensity of storms is likely to increase.
Railways, traversing vast and varied landscapes, are inevitably exposed to the elements. Severe storms can wreak havoc, causing flooding, track obstructions, signal malfunctions, and, in extreme cases, derailments such as the 2020 Carmont, Stonehaven derailment.
The question is, are we ready for the impact these increasingly severe weather patterns, marked by violent storms, intense rainfall, and high winds are likely to have on our railway infrastructure and what technology can we use to minimise these effects?
With a formidable challenge to the railway industry, the operational integrity and safety of railways during these extreme weather events are paramount.
Therefore a comprehensive strategy incorporating robust engineering, infrastructure resilience, and proactive emergency response protocols is underway.
The impact of severe weather on railways
High winds pose a threat to the stability of trains, especially in open or elevated areas, while heavy rain can lead to flooding, eroding ballast formation and disrupting the integrity of the track bed. The challenge is twofold: ensuring the safety of passengers and staff and maintaining operational continuity.
Railway networks are turning to advanced engineering and monitoring solutions to fortify infrastructure against severe weather.
The rise of IoT technology in the rail industry
The use of Internet of Things (IoT) technology in the railway industry has been gaining momentum in recent years and is beginning to change how the industry operates, enabling remote sensors and communications technologies under the paradigm of ‘Internet of Trains’. These technologies have enabled solutions like smart ticketing, more accurate passenger information, rail analytics, and dynamic route scheduling and planning. Using deep learning and AI, rail operators can monitor passenger flow and gather data for advanced analytics to help enable more-informed decision-making around staffing and security.
Innovations in monitoring and Predictive Maintenance
Sensors and IoT devices now play a crucial role in real-time remote monitoring of track conditions, signalling equipment, and structural health. These systems can detect and relay critical data on track conditions, water levels, and wind speeds, enabling timely responses to emerging threats.
Solutions such as remote track temperature monitoring or track voiding provide critical insights to the condition of a track, enabling operators to better understand what is happening across the network. One such product that is being used to detect flooding is TrackWater, a product developed by RailSense Solutions Ltd. TrackWater is an IoT sensor and data-driven product specifically designed to reduce the incidence of flooding on the rail network. It leverages advanced sensor technology to monitor silt build up in drainage assets gullies, as well as environmental parameters like rainfall, temperature and water levels in real-time. This data is processed and aggregated across the network into a dashboard, providing railway operators with predictive analysis about potential flood risks.
The benefits of this are clear – continuous monitoring and real-time data analysis allows for a proactive approach to flooding. Rather than a reactive approach to floods after they occur, rail operators can use TrackWater’s insights to take preventative measures, such as highly targeted maintenance of assets such as catch pits and gullies or even rerouting trains, reducing speeds or halting services until the risk subsides.
By understanding where and when flooding is likely to occur, operators can prioritise infrastructure improvements in high-risk areas, ultimately improving passenger and operative safety and service performance.
Collaborating with meteorological agencies
Railways are increasingly collaborating with meteorological agencies for better weather forecasting and storm tracking. Network Rail has an Extreme Weather Response Process to prepare for storms, which involves receiving forecasts through the Network Rail Weather Service and enacting response plans when a problem is forecast.3 Combining weather information with real-time data from IoT devices across the rail network, now provides actionable data remotely across the rail infrastructure.
The path forward
As the frequency and severity of storms continue to escalate, the railway industry’s approach to dealing with these challenges must be dynamic and forward-thinking.
The use of IoT technology is paramount in tackling the growing challenges of maintenance, infrastructure capacity limitations, increasing demand, rising expectations of passenger experience.
Investment in resilient infrastructure and cutting-edge monitoring technologies are crucial. Moreover, a collaborative approach involving various stakeholders, including government bodies, meteorological agencies, and the public, is essential.
The journey ahead is challenging, but with continued innovation, commitment and investment, railways can stand resilient against the fiercest of storms.
For more information about RailSense’s suite of remote track and infrastructure monitoring products visit railsense.co.uk