In 2023 a report by the World Meteorological Organization and the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change service stated that multiple nations within Europe had experienced their warmest year on record.

This not only rings alarm bells for the need to rapidly decarbonise but presents a myriad of threats to rail infrastructure.

In 2021, the European year of rail, the European Commission promoted the role of trains in aiding the EU to become climate-neutral by 2050, helping to curb the amount of inherently environmentally damaging short-haul flights around Europe.

Consequently, the industry will be facing increased usage of its services while battling the impending devastation of climate-related damage to the infrastructure.

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“Climate change and its associated extreme weather are the biggest challenges Network Rail, and in fact the world, faces”, says Chris Denham, senior media manager at Network Rail, the UK’s rail infrastructure provider.

To mitigate disruptions to infrastructure across Europe, infrastructure providers must anticipate and mitigate a host of threats from adverse weather conditions, calculating and deploying necessary funding and action to avoid deterioration of rail networks.

What dangers does climate change pose to rail infrastructure and service?

Climate change causes a multitude of difficulties for rail infrastructure. Increased temperatures can cause tracks to bend and buckle tracks while more frequent storms can result in perpetual cycles of repairs from fallen trees and flooding.

Patricia Grobben, climate change advisor at Belgian railway infrastructure manager Infrabel, explains that climate-related events could cause deterioration in robustness, punctuality, and premature ageing of infrastructure. This will result in an increased need for maintenance and renewal works and “increasingly frequent crisis management’” which will come with significant financial consequences.

Grobben highlights that while parts of rail infrastructure such as tracks, bridges, earthworks and hydraulic structures are particularly vulnerable to heavy rainfall, electrical engineering such as signalling and electric traction are more vulnerable to extreme temperatures.

Increased rainfall is particularly anticipated to be an issue in the UK due to a lot of the embankment sites being constructed from clay.

“In many areas, Victorian builders dug steep-sided cuttings to save money or constructed embankments out of clay and whatever else they had on-site, including steam engine ash. Culverts and drains were built to deal with the worse of the winters in the 1800s, which were much colder than now but nowhere near as wet.” Denham explains.

“Clay is a terrible material to build railways from, as it expands when it’s wet and contracts just as fast when it’s hot and dry. As embankments contract, they do so unevenly, leaving the railway on top looking like a roller coaster. Speed restrictions have to be put in place and we can’t tamp the track back into alignment until the weather turns and the rain soaks in.

“Most of our clay embankments are in the Southern region, and the hot summer of 2022 so speed restrictions over a long period and a stretch of the Wessex route down to Exeter.”

Alongside this, coastal rail routes are in danger of being destroyed by ongoing coastal erosions as sea levels continue to rise, jeopardising necessary routes, despite ongoing work to stabilise rail lines.

Network Rail Response

Network Rail, as highlighted in recent reports from Bloomberg, has been facing mounting values of payouts to UK operators due to disruptions to services caused by wind, flooding and high temperatures. For the sake of profitability and maintaining the network, the company has an imminent need to respond to these threats.

“In Britain, we’re already seeing hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters. They have put increasing strain on a network that is approaching 200 years old in some places”, Denham explains.

Network Rail’s third adaptation report published in December 2021, details the firm’s progress and plans for managing the impact of climate change, explaining the Weather Resilience and Climate Change Adaption Plan which is currently in place.

The report comprehensively assesses risks from precipitation, sea level rise, flooding temperature and storms from the present day to the 2080s, noting which sectors of the network’s infrastructure are likely to be affected.

Anticipating a host of risks from sinkholes to an increase in lineside fires in dry vegetation, the company’s plan aims to prepare the railway infrastructure to minimise the impacts of climate change while also achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Currently, Denham tells Railway Technology, Network Rail is writing plans for Control Period 7 which include a £2.9 billion investment into climate change resilience work. This will plan out action in this area up until 2029 and is due to be released in Spring 2024.

Denham clarifies that the plans will include drainage improvements, protections from landslips and maintenance that will help the railway cope better with extreme weather events, ultimately ensuring a more reliable service for passengers.

Belgian perspective

In Belgium, Infrabel has responded to the prospect of a sustained increase in temperatures with a variety of preventative measures.

Regarding rail tracks, Grobben explains that Infrabel has installed tension release devices to prevent rail buckling in high temperatures or breaking of the rails in low temperatures alongside seasonal control of the quality of track beds and inspections of joints and switches.

The rail provider also has weather stations monitoring rail temperatures which send automated alerts to maintenance teams if rail temperatures exceed certain thresholds.  

In anticipation of heavy rainfall, Infrabel has built storm basins in flood-prone areas and is amidst assessments of the stability of railway embankments in the case of flooding and bridge abutments subjected to excessive erosion in rivers.

Aside from these preventive measures, regarding decarbonisation as a whole, Infrabel has purchased ‘green rails’ for use in its infrastructure. These rails are manufactured using electric furnaces instead of coal blast furnaces alongside using recycled raw materials which reduce the carbon footprint of the rails’ manufacture by 70%.

Deutsche Bahn’s mitigations

With over 30,000km of rail, Deutsche Bahn (DB) is one of the largest rail infrastructure and service providers in Western Europe and thus has large swathes of rail to maintain and upgrade in the face of tumultuous and worsening weather conditions.

In 2021 Deutsche Bahn commissioned a study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) to examine climate changes between now and 2060 based on the best and worst climate scenarios developed by the intergovernmental panel. The results demonstrated the likelihood of significantly more heatwaves and severe weather conditions such as torrential rain yet milder winters.

To mitigate the potential for passenger issues in extreme temperatures, Deutsche Bahn has purchased long-distance trains which can maintain a stable and comfortable internal climate in temperatures up to 45 ° C which are tested every 6 months.

Deutsche Bahn’s natural management department, DB Netz deals with extreme weather events and adaptation to climate impacts. It has three areas of core focus: vegetation management, winter management and heat prevention. As part of the department’s response, they are installing temperature sensors at critical points and investing 150 million a year in vegetation management.

Elsewhere in the German rail network manager climate strategy, Deutsche Bahn plans to be climate-neutral by 2040, converting DB train operating companies in Germany fully to eco-power by 2038.