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Adapting rail infrastructure to climate change: cooperation pays off

Posted: 10 December 2010 | | No comments yet

The unexpected heavy snow falls and low temperatures of the last winter have shown how vulnerable transport infrastructure is to extreme or unusual weather conditions. More severe winters are just one of the consequences of climate change that affect Europe and its transport system. Heat waves, megafires and floods appear more-and-more often in the headlines of the European newspapers as these natural disasters have often enormous impact on people’s lives. It is therefore clear that adapting to climate change will become a priority for the rail sector in the years to come.

The unexpected heavy snow falls and low temperatures of the last winter have shown how vulnerable transport infrastructure is to extreme or unusual weather conditions. More severe winters are just one of the consequences of climate change that affect Europe and its transport system. Heat waves, megafires and floods appear more-and-more often in the headlines of the European newspapers as these natural disasters have often enormous impact on people’s lives. It is therefore clear that adapting to climate change will become a priority for the rail sector in the years to come.

The unexpected heavy snow falls and low temperatures of the last winter have shown how vulnerable transport infrastructure is to extreme or unusual weather conditions. More severe winters are just one of the consequences of climate change that affect Europe and its transport system. Heat waves, megafires and floods appear more-and-more often in the headlines of the European newspapers as these natural disasters have often enormous impact on people’s lives. It is therefore clear that adapting to climate change will become a priority for the rail sector in the years to come.

As far as rail infrastructure is concerned, the issue is difficult to address, as it is subject to a wide regional variability. For example, while Adif’s infrastructure will have to be ready to cope with heat waves and forest fires in Spain, Jernbaneverket’s coastal railway lines might have to face sea level rise in Norway.

In general, the following effects of climate change will have a direct impact on rail transport infrastructure and services:

  • Floods
  • Storms
  • Wild fires
  • Sea level rise
  • Coastal erosion
  • Heat waves
  • Droughts and to their impacts on soil stability
  • Landslides
  • Gradual warming of permafrost.

Climate change will bring mostly negative effects to the rail business and the quality of services, such as slower operating speeds, decreased payload capacity, increased maintenance, decreased visibility and temperature-related wear-and-tear of infrastructure.

On the other hand, decreased demand for winter maintenance due to milder winter weather might be a potential positive effect of climate change.

Thinking about climate change brings back images of major floods, heat waves and snowfalls across Europe. Climate change adaptation is more complex. It can include changes related to the size and frequency of exceptional weather events. But more influential and central to climate change is the alteration in the long-term environmental conditions (biodiversity, meteorology, climatological, physical) that collectively form the pattern of external factors interacting with rail infrastructure and operations.

In other words, rather than considering the long-term changes in 50 years time, it is important to deal with weather pattern changes that would take place in the meantime:

  • Longer, colder, wetter winters – build-up of ice and snow bringing down over head lines, points freezing, lines getting blocked
  • Dryer hotter summers – drying out clay substructures, buckling rails
  • Changes in river dynamics (undermining bridge structures)
  • New plant species – invading land, destroying civil engineering structures; etc.

These are all small, gradual changes but they are already adding extra costs and complexity to our operations.

From plans…

Members of the Association of European Rail Infrastructure Managers (EIM) have started to implement long-term plans to adapt their infrastructure to the effects of climate change.

Réseau Ferré de France’s (RFF) adaptation to climate change is at a start up level. It begins to indentify the problem by projecting the current situation in the year 2100. In France, climate adaptation is not a problem of the future, since extreme weather events have already been taking place. This implies the need to adopt a risk-management approach.

When building new lines, RFF is integrating climate change adaptation in the preliminary phases of the projects. The existing infrastructure was not designed to face climate change, therefore, RFF has defined a methodology in order to set a diagnosis and respond better to the extreme weather conditions.

For the Finnish Transport Agency (FTA) climate change will entail higher maintenance costs. After developing a risk analysis FTA has set a number of adaptation measures and actions and is working on energy efficiency.

A study by Network Rail, the British infrastructure manager, will look at the exposed coastal tracks, embankments and thousands of bridges to learn whether they can withstand the increase of extreme weather events that climatologists have predicted for the coming decades. The project will examine 150 miles of vulnerable coastal lines. It will study the risk of flooding and landslides for approximately 9,000 miles of cuttings and embankments alongside lines, and the ability of 4,500 bridges that span rivers and estuaries to withstand floods.

The UK-wide investigation will cost £750,000 but railway executives believe that the implementation of recommendations could save the industry £1 billion over the next 30 years by improving safety and preventing emergencies.

…To reality

The costs are already substantial. In Finland, the emergency measures taken by the Finnish Transport Administration during the last winter amounts to €10-15 million. In Sweden at the Hallsberg, junction and marshalling yard, 600mm of snow fell on the rails in just a few days and built up 900,000m3 of snow – and the equivalent of 112,500 lorries were required to remove it.

On 23 and 24 January 2009, as a result of a deep low pressure system, Windstorm Klaus reached Southern France leaving a trail of destruction and disruption. The French railway network was badly affected as collapsed trees blocked 1,500km (900 miles) of track, including the high-speed link between Paris and Toulouse. France’s state rail company said 1,000 workers repaired overhead power cables and removed the fallen trees from rail lines.

In Dawlish (UK), waves breached a sea wall designed to withstand a severe ‘one in a hundred years’ storm. By 2080, these severe storms could occur as often as once every 14 years, with the incidence of waves breaking over the sea wall increasing by at least 6.000%.

European adaptation projects

Cooperation at European level is indeed key in order to tackle the effects of climate change in a consistent manner. For this purpose, the European rail sector has undertaken a number of initiatives.

InfraGuidER is a Coordinated Action co-funded by the European Commission under the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development. The full name is ‘Infrastructure Guidelines for Environmental Railway Performance’.

The starting date of this action was 1 January 2009 and the duration is two years. The main objective of InfraGuidER is to create an efficient and profitable exchange of knowhow, experience, insight and research results among different actors and experts of railway research focusing on the Railway Infrastructure Environmental Impact Evaluation. EIM’s Members Trafikverket and Network Rail participate in this project.

The WEATHER project, also funded through the 7th framework programme of the European Union, Directorate General for Research and Technical Development, runs from November 2009 to May 2012. It aims to analyse the economic costs of climate change for transport systems in Europe and explores ways for reducing them in the context of sustainable policy design.

The EWENT project (Extreme Weather impacts on European Networks of Transport) is a direct partner activity to WEATHER, funded by the Directorate General for Research and Technical Development (DG-RTD).

The goal of EWENT is to estimate and monetise the disruptive effects of extreme weather events on the operation and performance of the EU transportation system. The methodological approach is based on generic risk management framework that follows a standardised process starting from the identification of hazardous extreme weather phenomena, followed by impact assessment and concluded by mitigation and risk control measures.

Coordinated by the UIC, the ARISCC project (Adapting Rail Infrastructure to Climatic Change) aims to provide concrete rail response to the challenge not only to survive the extreme weather conditions, but also to recover quickly from them and to be able to function in abnormal circumstances. It provides the best practises and guidelines for UIC members and develops sophisticated messages to decision makers on rail infrastructure maintenance and investments.

The role of EIM

EIM plays an important role as a European coordinator on climate change adaptation, in particular concerning the winter issues. Indeed, political, technical and communication aspects need to be addressed in order to have an efficient EU cooperation.

However, cooperation among rail infrastructure managers from different countries is not enough to guarantee the success of the rail sector’s adaptation strategy. Therefore, EIM works closely with other actors of the rail business, such as railway undertakings (CER) and railway manufacturers (UNIFE) in order to streamline the efforts in the fight against the effects of climate change.

Finding the necessary funds is the essential step in order to turn good intentions into reality. Therefore, EIM calls on the European Union to properly consider the effects of climate change on transport infrastructure, and to help to procure the necessary financial support to enable rail infrastructure to properly adapt to the extreme weather conditions in an economically sensible way.

Moreover, adaptation is an issue that needs to be properly addressed in an urgent way. It has to be seen as part of a package together with other measures related to the EU’s climate change policies, such as the more well-known mitigation efforts. With the EU’s adopted objective to keep overall temperature increase to no more than 2°C, limiting the scale and the frequency of extreme climatic events, mitigation measures will help to reduce the increasing need and cost of adaptation measures over the next decades. Any adaptation strategy for transport could thus be supported by mitigation measures such as the internalisation of external costs of transport.

Tackling causes and effects of climate change at the same time would just be the most logical thing to do. The European Rail Infrastructure Managers are ready for these fights.

About the Author

Hendrik Abma

Hendrik Abma started work at the EIM as Executive Director on 1 September 2010. He replaced Michael Robson who retired after four years as the Head of the EIM’s secretariat in Brussels. Hendrik Abma graduated with a Law Degree in Public Administration. He has worked with the European Commission and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and has held several positions in the European trade associations sector in Brussels.

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