Winter is Coming....But Is My Train?
Legends of “the wrong kind of snow” and recent high-profile incidents have contributed to the image that trains struggle in winter time. However, the railway is actually quite resilient in winter, defying incredibly adverse conditions.
Some of this is quite simple – trains are a lot bigger and stronger than they occasionally get credit for. The track and trains are designed to be resilient in all weathers, and most of the time succeed. Even when the roads fail and planes are grounded, the railways will often still be running.
This is also partly thanks to the amount of preparation, which generally starts in the spring before, when the performance over the previous winter is reviewed. From there the first steps can be taken to plan for next winter, even though this is months away.
The winter can present all sorts of challenges to rail. Snow and ice can affect the infrastructure, particularly the electrified third rail, but also points and signalling. Adverse weather – especially high winds – can jeopardise overhead electrification and bring down trees onto the track. Platforms and concourses can be wetter and more slippery. And yes, given a specific combination of conditions, "the wrong kind of snow", specifically dry, powdery snow can find their way into electrical systems, causing short circuits and traction motor damage in trains unless they are adequately protected.
Heavy snow fall could mean that special trains fitted with snow ploughs will be deployed to clear thick drifts from the running line.
In rare situations – and they are rare – conditions can mean train services are so disrupted that the service has to be reduced or stopped altogether. This can increase the risk of crowding at stations and on platforms. If a train becomes stranded between stations, there’s an increased risk that passengers attempt to evacuate the train unsupervised, putting themselves at risk from moving trains and electrocution from the third rail or overhead wires.
Although climate change will mean more extreme weather, the actual nature of winter hasn’t changed dramatically over the last 30 years. What has changed are passengers’ patience levels, expectations and access to social media which is capable of spreading misinformation. Some passengers may fully expect a normal train service to be running in a snowstorm. Understanding the nature of what could happen and putting the right, reasonable measures in place is key.
The winter of 2009/10 was a game changer. It was significantly harsh and revealed weaknesses in the way the railway prepared for winter, particularly in not reading the railway as a system. The following winter came early and also caught the railway off‑guard.
The experience led to the introduction of a new Guidance Note, GEGN8628 - Guidance on Preparation for and Operation during Winter, which was published in June 2013. Previous guidance hadn’t been reviewed or updated since 1991.
Thanks to GEGN8628, rail companies have a consistent reference point from which to make adequate preparations for winter throughout the year, and generally speaking, the railway has been better prepared.
However, there are always new lessons to learn (or old lessons to rediscover), and the winter of 2017/8 provided a reminder of how badly things can go wrong. Incidents in the New Forest and at Lewisham in March 2018 showed how trains can become stranded without power for hours and point to collective industry management failings.
Learning from the bigger events like this and the day-to-day issues in winter have again been absorbed and reviewed, and again revealed a lack of systems thinking.
Cooperation between Network Rail, RDG and RSSB has led to a a Combined Winterisation Checklist which makes it easier for rail companies to keep track of responsibilities and key tasks. It prompts decision makers to cooperate more closely with other organisations on issues of common concern and interfaces – where there is a risk that respective parties assume the other is on the case.
The new Checklist is being trialled this winter with a view to being formally incorporated into the standard among other improvements next year.
With better preparation, the risk of winter causing upset to the rail system and its customers will be reduced and better managed