Southampton Scientists predict ‘Serious Threat’ to UK Rail Networks


Scientists from the University of Southampton’s School of Civil Engineering and the, Environment have predicted ‘widespread disruption’ to the UK’s rail, road and underground networks if climate change causes the projected increase in extreme weather events.

The study, in collaboration with Network Rail and published in the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrology, looked at the number of landslides and floods that caused delays of more than eight hours on rail travel.

The frequency of extreme weather events – wetter winters and drier summers – is set to increase with climate change over the next 50 years.

This means that travel chaos like that caused by the storms of 2000-2001 could become commonplace unless action is taken to prepare our transport systems. The storms caused landslides that blocked Scottish arterial routes, station closures and delays as trees came down and routes cancelled altogether as lines were flooded.

Earlier in 2010, eight people were injured when heavy rain caused a landslide on a track in Scotland and caused a train derailment, and in a separate incident rain caused 40 tonnes of rock to be deposited on a railway in Dorset after a landslide which caused severe delays.

However, it is not just wet weather events that cause delays. The 2003 heat wave caused the shrinking and swelling of railway embankments, which caused many landslides and further disruption to travel.

Equally, hot summers cause subsidence, which damages both travel networks and civilian properties. A separate study conducted by Network Rail found that around half of the UK’s 20,000km railway embankments were in ‘poor’ to ‘marginal’ condition and at risk of landslides.

Because embankments are made of soft rock they are particularly vulnerable to climate change and changing rainfall patterns as they take up water, become heavy and fall, causing landslides. The study found that one of the most ‘at risk’ areas was the South East due to its largely clay-based geology, which is prone to landslides. This could have serious implications for the London Underground system and a severe economic toll if there are significant delays or it is put out of use altogether.

The lead author of the study, Fleur Loveridge, a PhD student, said,

“Climate change in the near future is ‘locked in’ – it’s too late to change that. We need to raise awareness and increase maintenance budgets, as well as supporting research to develop innovative engineering solutions to tackle the problems before they happen.

“This is a really serious issue that needs to be addressed; ‘adaptation’ is the key word. Proactive planning for climate change offers much better tax payer value for money than the inevitably large outlay when things go wrong.”

Engineers are now working on finding solutions to the problem of embankment stability and finding a future for our vulnerable transport networks.

In the Comprehensive Spending Review the UK government announced a £14bn investment into Network Rail for rail maintenance and investment. This investment is crucial to ensure a long-term future for our transport networks that play a vital role in our economy.


Discussion4 Comments

  1. avatar

    Let’s just hope something is done about this!

    (My son asked for a train set for Christmas but I can’t find one anywhere. So I’ve bought him a replacement bus service set instead).

  2. avatar

    Dear Hatti,
    Very good article. Well done.
    Apart from the climate change issue (glad you didn’t mention global warming currently !)
    We also need to get Network Rail to become a fit for purpose organisation, so can you sort that as well ?
    Good luck for future articles and getting published.
    Best regards,
    JH (friend of JD)

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