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Unique challenges in a changing climate

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Met Office Climate Scientist Alice Lake discusses how climate change will continue to influence the efficiency of the UK’s railways.

A winter of what has seemed like a succession of named storms disrupting the rail industry has served as a reminder of how the weather in the UK has a habit of keeping us all in check. When you throw in periods of snow and ice, it can be hard to think long-term about rail planning for next summer, let alone summer in 50 years.

Alice Lake – Credit: Met Office

Recent years have already demonstrated how the variability of the UK climate can be challenging for rail operators and workers. A record-breaking 40.3°C was recorded at Coningsby in the summer of 2022 in what was a landmark moment for the UK climate. Storms and the dreaded leaves on the line represent other hazards, and that’s before you even get on to the snow and ice risk over the winter months.

Weather hazards affecting the rail industry in the UK isn’t a new challenge. But it is a changing challenge in the context of climate change. We’re already observing long-term trends in the UK’s temperature which could have knock-on impacts on the efficiency of rail operation.

Using 30-year meteorological averaging periods, average daily maximum temperatures for the UK have risen by around 0.9°C when comparing 1961-1990 to the most recent averaging period of 1991-2020. While this may sound like a small difference to those who work outside climate science, these changes can have big impacts in the weather we experience on the ground, or on the railway.

Climate projections for the UK suggest an increase in the frequency of hotter, drier summers, which means rail resilience has to adapt in the long term, while other hazards will still persist. Even in a changing climate, cold weather will continue in the UK, as seen at points in January this year, but climate projections also indicate an increase in the frequency of warmer, wetter winters, with more intense rainfall events throughout the year.

Those familiar with rail infrastructure will be aware of the temperature challenges of the UK’s tracks. Steel tracks, often decades old, are designed to be operable within a certain temperature range. Go beyond that range, at either end, and rail service operators will have to enact speed restrictions to ensure safety, or cancel services when needed.

With the UK’s climate still needing to withstand temperatures at both ends of the scale, even in a changing climate, it’s a unique challenge that many other countries don’t have to consider. This is why a common complaint from onlookers that rail services run without restrictions in hotter conditions in other countries is a bit of a red herring. Warmer countries lay track which can operate within their likely temperatures. The extremes of UK temperatures mean that isn’t always possible here.

Credit: Network Rail

Many companies quite rightly have to consider the transport challenges of today before thinking about the climate in 50 or 100 years. It’s why the Met Office’s services to rail operators remain so popular. Whether it’s low adhesion forecasts, temperature information or data services, Met Office consultants help many operators run their network efficiently day-to-day.

However, there’s also an interest in longer-term and bespoke climate information to help operators understand the challenges of the next century of rail in the UK in the context of weather and climate.

Climate change’s long-term impact on rail infrastructure is one of the studies we’re actively working on. This study should help us to provide further bespoke weather and climate information for customers to help with strategic decision making.

The rail industry has always been able to adapt to changing weather conditions. In the coming decades, we’ll need to adapt over the long term to meet the climate challenges of the future.


Lead image: istockphoto.com