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Climate change adaptation

Scientific evidence shows that the warming of the global climate system is unequivocal: global average temperatures are higher than they were in past centuries and they continue to increase. As a result, seas and oceans are warming, polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and there are more varied and extreme weather patterns.

The severity of these impacts is expected to be correlated to the level of preparedness for climate change. In the worst case scenarios, climate change will endanger critical infrastructure and territorial integrity, challenging the resilience of socio-economic systems. Higher average temperatures; rising sea levels; more frequent floods and heat waves; wetter winters and dryer summers will create specific risks for railway assets, operations and maintenance, staff and passengers.

The railway industry in Great Britain has already introduced a wide range of measures to mitigate climate change. For example, Network Rail has developed and published climate change adaptation plans for all routes. It has also established a climate change resilience steering group to strengthen governance and adaptive capacity, and has recruited a range of specialists in the field.

This page describes the latest learning on railway systems' resilience to current and future weather and climate events emerging from RSSB's 'T1009 Tomorrow's Railway and Climate Change Adaptation' research programme External link  which was authorised in June 2012. It is funded jointly by RSSB and Network Rail and within its five year programme, builds upon the previous T925 research project External link, completed in 2011. The project is supported by a consortium involving Arup, British Geological Society, CIRIA, JBA Consulting, Met Office, Transport Research Laboratory, University of Birmingham and University College London. The project is overseen by RSSB, Network Rail External link and John Dora Consulting External link.

​​​​​​Tomorrow's Railway and Climate Change Adaption

The group found unequivocal evidence that Britain's railway will be affected by changes in weather conditions caused by climate change and predicts that, without mitigation, climate change will present a significant increased risk to the railway network, to passengers and railway workers.

The project made a number of recommendations to improve the climate change resilience of the GB rail network, including:

  • Develop a multi-agency co-operation model.
  • Identify vulnerable assets and locations through detailed vulnerability mapping (including buildings, track, lineside equipment and trees, vegetation and adjacent land)
  • Enhance weather incident reporting and asset condition monitoring. Incident reporting requirements should include associated local weather conditions, and the consistency and accuracy of recorded weather conditions where delays occur or assets fail should be increased

  • Expand the use of Geographic Information System-based (GIS) alert systems and weather susceptibility maps: extreme weather conditions must be understood better before special mitigation methods can be applied

  • Review and revise standards (such as: increasing the maximum temperatures used in rail asset design standards to fit with future climate predictions, changing workforce safety standards to take into account working in adverse weather conditions) and make rail assets 'climate change proof'

  • Replace vulnerable assets based on life-cycle costs analysis, and take a long-term view of climate change adaptation policy (for instance, consider vegetation planting to reduce temperatures at vulnerable sites and to ensure more stable earthworks)

  • Consider a "Journey Availability" metric to assess the long-term availability across UK transport networks during extreme weather.

These recommendations can be implemented in the short to medium term, and progress could be regularly monitored and assessed by the relevant experts. Climate change adaptation is a learning journey and therefore expert discussions should continue, and methods and approaches should be refined, taking into account the complexity of climate change issues and the many remaining uncertainties.

Key documents

The programme also delivered a compendium of research on climate change impacts and information on weather resilience management relevant to the GB railway. The compendium contains full details of each information source including title, author, summary and access details. Entries have been classified by the climate risk they relate to, the appropriate railway system and the type of document. This compendium is available from RSSB's SPARK website External link, where you can also find all of the appendices to the main report.

This document is hosted on SPARK


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