Britain’s railway is under threat from climate change and must act quickly to avert the economic and physical impact of more severe weather, argues Michael Woods from the industry body RSSB

There’s a dark cloud on the horizon that threatens to rain on the rail industry’s parade. And not just rain. Floods, snow, hail and heatwaves also feature in this unpromising long-range forecast, plus a whole lot more. Climate change deniers cover your ears now. The evidence is overwhelming that global warming is changing the face of the planet and may have a profound and lasting impact on our societies, our economies and, without doubt our transport infrastructure.

The view for rail
Recent research undertaken by RSSB in partnership with Network Rail highlights the threat posed to Britain’s rail network – part of the country’s essential infrastructure – by a combination of higher average temperatures, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather.

The outcome is likely to be more disruption to rail operations, damage to railway infrastructure and assets, and a negative impact on health and wellbeing. And if that isn’t bad enough, it will also come with a hefty price tag. The current cost to the industry of severe weather – 1.6 million delay minutes, or about £50 million a year* – is expected to rise significantly.

* Source: Network Rail analysis report, September 2014

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the rail industry understands the risks and has made a good start in meeting the challenges presented by climate change. Network Rail, for example, has developed and published climate change adaptation plans for all routes. It has also established a climate change resilience steering group to beef up governance and adaptive capacity, and has recruited a range of specialists in the field.

Planning for the future
However, the industry can’t act in isolation; greater investment and support is needed if we are to meet the threat of climate change and maintain an effective rail system. Our recent report, Tomorrow’s Railway and Climate Change Adaption, makes recommendations to build on the work that has been done so far. They include:

  • Developing a multi-agency cooperation model
  • Improved mapping of vulnerable assets
  • Accurate logging of the location of incidents and the weather
  • Revising industry standards so they fit with future climate predictions
  • Developing a journey availability metric to assess the long-term availability across the UK transport networks during extreme weather
  • Replacing vulnerable assets based on life-cycle costs analysis, and take a long-term view of climate change adaptation policy (for instance, consider planting vegetation to reduce temperatures at vulnerable sites and to ensure more stable earthworks)

These short to medium-term measures would need to be regularly monitored and assessed by experts. Climate change adaptation is a learning process, requiring ongoing refinement, and a recognition of the complexity and uncertainties that surround the subject.

The stumbling block
By identifying the network’s most vulnerable points and by taking action now, the disruptive and damaging impact of climate change can be significantly reduced in the future. But funding is an issue. Some climate change adaptation and resilience projects have failed to gain the funding they need particularly because the wider economic and social impact of disruption to rail services is not taken into account.

In austere times, this is, perhaps, understandable. But it is also worryingly short-sighted. Major disruption to the rail network caused by extreme weather will almost certainly have an impact on the wider economy. When the rail link between Devon and Cornwall and the rest of the UK was severed for two months in 2014 (see box opposite), the cost was far higher than the bill for repairs and compensation payments. Take into account the impact on local businesses and communities – hotel bookings in the South West were reportedly down 20 per cent when the line was closed – and the case for taking action becomes more compelling.

Presenting all the facts
Indeed, any assessment of the relative merits of climate change adaptation or resilience projects should factor in the wider socio-economic benefits and the knock-on effects it has on other transport networks. One case study in our report shows that by applying a more complete set of costs and benefits to options for relieving flooding at Cowley Bridge Junction near Exeter a significant positive impact on the value of those schemes is achieved. Indeed, the benefits are estimated to be up to seven times higher when taking account of the wider socio-economic benefits.

Maintaining an effective rail network, which is prepared for the damaging impact of climate change and more frequent extreme weather will require investment and support. It will also require greater collaboration and strong, forward thinking leadership.

Devon and Cornwall 2014
A series of devastating storms in February 2014 hit the West Country and brought parts of the sea wall down at Dawlish, completely severing the rail artery linking Cornwall and large parts of Devon with the rest of the UK for two months.

The closure had a serious impact on the local economy…but it could have been so much worse.

An early warning system meant that train services were suspended before the storms struck, ensuring that passengers and railway staff remained safe and the only damage was to infrastructure.

Climate change – the facts

  • Global temperatures have risen by nearly 0.8° C since the late 19th century and have been rising at about 0.2° C per decade over the past 25 years.
  • The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass over the last two decades, and glaciers worldwide have been shrinking
  • The rate of sea level rise since 1850 has been larger than in the two previous millennia
  • Other climate change indicators include widespread changes in precipitation amounts, ocean salinity, wind patterns and more droughts, heatwaves and tropical cyclones
  • Combined emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in the global climate system in the 21st century

Climate change – the risks for rail
High temperature:

  • Rail buckle
  • Expansion of swing bridges
  • Overheating of electrical equipment
  • Overhead line sag


  • Earthworks failure
  • Bridge scouring
  • Risk to signalling systems
  • Electronic equipment and track circuits failures


  • Earthwork failure
  • Movement of overhead lines caused by soil shrinkage around foundations

Heavy snow:

  • Traction motor failures through snow ingress
  • Trees falling on tracks and overhead lines

Storms and rising sea levels:

  • Coastal erosion of earthworks, structures and tracks
  • Damage to sea walls

Michael Woods is Professional Lead, Operations R&D at RSSB
The project, Tomorrow’s Railway and Climate Change Adaptation is jointly funded by RSSB and Network Rail and supported by John Dora Consulting Ltd and a consortium led by ARUP comprising British Geological Society, CIRIA, JBA Consulting, the Met Office, Transport Research Laboratory, University of Birmingham and University College London.