Fortifying the tracks: How can the UK rail sector build climate resilience?

Rising climate change-driven weather incidents in the UK are causing more rail delays and cancellations, leading to economic losses. edie spoke with Thom Rawson, RSSB’s sustainable rail principal, about the impact on the rail network and resilience strategies.

Fortifying the tracks: How can the UK rail sector build climate resilience?

Weather-related incidents have incurred a £3bn cost to UK network operators over the last 15 years.

As the UK experiences a surge in extreme weather events impacting various sectors of the economy, the rail infrastructure and its operations have not been spared. This has resulted in delays and cancellations of train services, causing inconvenience to consumers and economic losses.

According to recent research conducted by Arup, weather-related incidents have incurred a £3bn cost to UK network operators over the last 15 years due to delays, cancellations, insurance claims and autumn preparation efforts.

Data from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) shows that weather-related disruptions amounted to 1.548 million minutes of delays across the network during the latest reporting year of 2023/24 – equivalent to 1,075 days.

“Year after year, we see the increasing impact of extreme weather events like storms, floods and heatwaves hurting our rail network and the communities it serves,” says Thom Rawson, sustainable rail principal at the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), an independent research body aiming to improve safety, efficiency and sustainability of the UK’s rail network.

He adds: “All this has a cascading effect because it makes rail, as a travel choice, less appealing. Fewer passengers translate into less revenue, less relevancy and, in turn, it all undermines the railway’s wider benefits.”

Beyond the economic losses incurred, the current condition of the UK rail sector underscores the necessity for intensified efforts to reduce carbon emissions, if the UK is to achieve its net-zero emissions target by 2050.

Industry transformation and carbon footprint

Between April 2022 and March 2023, emissions from trains alone amounted to 2.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, as per recent ORR data.

Nevertheless, Rawson tells edie that change is coming within the industry, marked by the adoption of innovative technologies and a growing recognition of the implications of climate change.

He says: “The focus is shifting. The industry is becoming more proactive, setting budgets aside for building resilience through dedicated activities and deployment of innovative technologies.”

Rawson highlights that despite rail’s relatively low contribution of 1.4% to the UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it has been steadily declining in recent years. He suggests that while the rail industry represents a small portion of the emissions issue, it possesses significant potential to contribute to achieving net-zero emissions.

“We are seeing increased efforts to raise awareness among colleagues and passengers and promote a better understanding of how important it is to be prepared in the face of a changing climate.”

Shifting focus: Sector’s climate adaptation strategy

Recently, Network Rail, the UK Government’s arm overseeing the nation’s primary railway network, announced a £2.8bn investment for initiatives and technological upgrades aimed at bolstering resilience to extreme weather conditions and the impacts of climate change over the upcoming five years.

As a component of its rail enhancement strategy, Network Rail intends to boost investment in the maintenance of drains, cuttings and embankments to enhance their resilience to adverse weather conditions.

Additionally, it has plans to install more ‘smart’ movement sensors to detect changes in cuttings and embankments, CCTV at high-risk flooding sites and new technology to predict windspeeds and real-time rainfall forecasting to manage train services better.

Rawson says: “We need targeted investment and upgrade programmes for rail infrastructure, buildings and rolling stock if we are to maintain and enhance resilience, safety and performance.

“The industry can use technology and data to better understand and manage the impacts of weather and develop a consistent set of metrics to measure performance.”

Additionally, he emphasises the necessity of improved skill training to facilitate the transition into a more resilient sector.

He says: “Colleagues across the rail network should understand how climate may affect their work and feel empowered to respond. Sustainability is a shared responsibility, and everyone’s job.”

As part of its multibillion-pound plan, Network Rail has also established a new ‘weather academy’ with plans to train hundreds of operational staff on how to better understand forecasts and improve decision-making during stormy weather.

Simultaneously, industry players such as RSSB and Arup have released their own frameworks to guide the sector towards decarbonisation and climate resiliency.

Sector guidance: Decarbonisation frameworks

In November of last year, the RSSB launched its Sustainable Rail Blueprint, a framework to guide the rail industry in line with the Government’s objectives on carbon reduction, enhancing air quality, safeguarding biodiversity, conserving resources and improving the overall quality of life across the nation.

Adding onto that, consultancy giant Arup released its Rail Resilience Framework last month warning that industry action needs to include collaboration between all sections of rail operation, governments, businesses and local communities. Otherwise, railways risk costly and repetitive piecemeal repairs and upgrades, potentially resulting in prolonged closures.

The RSSB undertook a review last year to evaluate the rail industry’s response to climate change. The examination revealed that the majority of rail organisations depend on sector-specific guidance, such as policies and standards, to implement measures for climate resilience.

Rawson explains that adapting the sector to climate change needs a multifaceted approach.

He says: “We need policies that prioritise investment in resilient infrastructure, designing with climate resilience in mind, or pushing for a modal shift.

The Labour Party unveiled its railway sector strategy last month, featuring a pledge to create a new independent entity called Great British Railways. The plan aims to achieve six key objectives: reliability, affordability, efficiency, quality, accessibility and safety. However, the Party’s proposal lacks clarity regarding its intentions for rail sustainability.

“Achieving sustainable rail is not a one-off project or a box-ticking exercise. It requires ongoing commitment, collaboration and innovation from all parts of the rail industry and beyond.

“That is why we must keep momentum and build on our progress so far,” concludes Rawson.

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