Climate change - preparing rail to weather the storm

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On 16 June, the independent Climate Change Committee published an alarming report which should be a wake-up call for all of us.

The Adaptation Committee’s Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk sets out the priority climate change risks and opportunities for the UK. It is a detailed appraisal of how ready we are to handle imminent changes to our environment. Or perhaps how ready we aren’t.

A key finding is that the gap between the level of risk we face and our readiness to adapt has got bigger. 

Efforts to reduce the overall extent of climate change, like decarbonising, are critical. However, it’s vital to remember that the globe’s temperature has already risen by over 1 degree Celsius since 1850, and further increases are inevitable. We must act to keep these increases as low as possible, but also to adapt to the inevitable new circumstances that higher temperatures will bring.

The big picture is a country under increasing economic and environmental pressure, with strains on energy supplies, homes, infrastructure and the natural environment. 

For the rail industry, some of this is very close to home. More extreme weather events present greater risks to track, bridges, tunnels, earthworks, buildings, trains, not to mention the energy, IT and communications systems, and importantly the people who use and work on the railway.

Last year, on 12 August 2020, a passenger train derailed at Carmont near Stonehaven, killing three people, as a result of very heavy rainfall, which had washed debris on to the track. Although the full report from RAIB is yet to be published, it seems clear that the changing climate and the occurrence of extreme weather is a key root cause.

Britain’s railways are not sitting on their hands. Research by RSSB published in 2016 revealed the size of the task in ensuring assets can adapt and withstand more extreme weather and changes to our climate. The work - Tomorrow's Railway and Climate Change Adaptation (TRaCCA) (ref T1009) - proposed prototype metrics and asset vulnerability tools that can be used to assess the resilience of the railway as part of a wider transport system. 

RSSB’s safety and standards teams have been helping the railway learn from the initial findings of the Carmont accident. These have included changes to the Rule Book so operational staff such as drivers, on-board staff and signallers are clearer on what, when and how they should respond when they encounter flooding and debris.

However, we must now redouble our efforts. 

To meet the challenges that the Climate Change Committee highlights, we need to pursue a more proactive agenda. Two areas of our work are worth pointing out here.

First, we are making good progress in developing the new Sustainable Rail Strategy on behalf of the industry. This will equip the industry with a coherent, unified framework for sustainability; in response to passenger, community and government expectations. A key part of this will be focussed on climate change adaptation, and we will be guiding our members on how to make the changes necessary to adapt.

We are the ‘lead developers’, bringing our in-house expertise in environmental sustainability topics such as carbon and air quality, as well as social sustainability, to the wealth of talent and knowhow across the industry and throughout the supply chain. Rail leaders are already moving to deepen their commitment, and we look forward to setting out the pan-industry strategic approach later in the year. The strategy will be a big contribution to the work we are doing with Network Rail on the Whole Industry Strategic Plan for Britain’s railways beyond 2022.

The second area of work is on data. We are developing new architecture and capability to analyse data from a wide range of sources and generate safety insights. This will support industry decision making and provide the direction for risk management activities. In the context of earthworks and extreme weather, we have been helping Network Rail develop a decision support tool to strike an acceptable balance between the risk posed by extreme weather events and the secondary risk from any imposed speed restrictions.

This new approach to data has already been successfully used on key topics like assaults on staff at stations during the pandemic, signals passed at danger (SPADs), trackworker safety and Covid transmission.

The tried-and-tested approach that we use to improve safety can be used to enhance sustainability. By monitoring and analysing data, evidence, research and insights, the railway can weather the storm better.


Written by: George Davies, Director of Sustainable Development, RSSB and Ali Chegini, Director of System Safety and Health, RSSB

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