The climate is right to focus on resilience

Water, water everywhere: LNER Azuma No 801218 working the 06.48 Glasgow Central to King’s Cross passes flooding caused by Storm Henk between Balderton and Claypole on 4January 2024.
Paul Clark

Ten years ago, the power of the climate was unleashed in dramatic fashion at Dawlish, but only nine years later were the sea wall works there completed.

With rails left hanging in the air and much of glorious Devon and all of Cornwall cut off from the rail network, it was a powerful and vivid reminder of the power of nature, and of the need to ensure our infrastructure networks are resilient.

At the time, money was said to be no object to secure the resilience of the SouthWest’s rail network.

Network Rail was quick off the mark, commissioning studies to assess the likely work needed on the coastal railway betweenTeignmouth and Exeter – yet funding comes in penny packets with none of the continuity needed for efficient work. The SouthWest is not alone here – look at the disruption caused by floods inWales in recent years, or the apparent increase in landslips in southern England.

Almost everywhere you look, structures and civil engineering are being battered by the extremes of our increasingly unpredictable climate. The festive period was quite literally awash with line closures as the impact of relentless rain became unmanageable. On a largely ageing network which was never designed to handle this kind of weather, this sort of disruption could become the norm.

Things are only likely to get worse. Just as the warmest year since records began was recorded, Britain has faced seemingly endless waves of storms and rain, bringing flooding and disruption across our transport networks. Yet whenever climate change is mentioned, there is little if any discussion about what we could or should do to protect our infrastructure. This is not merely a railway issue either: roads, power, telecoms and water are all vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather.

GETTING AGRIP

The Carmont accident in August 2020 was a real wake-up call for the railway, and Network Rail’s initiatives to better predict extreme weather, combined with revised command and control arrangements, are without doubt making a difference. So too is increased monitoring of vulnerable embankments and cuttings, which alert NR to incipient slips and allow it to stop trains early. It might be frustrating being stood still when you want to be moving, but it is far better that than the opposite.

That isn’t all. NR is examining where weather resilience interventions are needed and where very limited investment should be focused first. The work is far from complete, but it demonstrates a sincerity and determination on its part to face the challenges of climate change. But, without wanting to rain on NR’s parade, while high-profile incidents such as the sea wall breach at Dawlish generate headlines and work for architects and consultants, there are more fundamental things the railway can do to help itself. Pictures of the cab of a ScotRail HST which hit a fallen tree at Broughty Ferry on 27 December prompted renewed calls for the veteran fleet to be withdrawn on safety grounds. However, given even the latest crashworthiness standards don’t cater for this all-too-frequent eventuality, focusing on the train seems to be the wrong approach. A better question to ask is why that tree was allowed to be in a position to fall onto the railway in the first place.

It is an old saw, if you’ll excuse the pun, that steam era linesides were kept scrupulously clear of vegetation to reduce fire risk, but a very welcome side effect was that the work of those gangers also meant it was much less likely a tree would fall onto the track. Arenewed drive to cut all trees down within the lineside boundary is relatively cheap and will reduce the impact of leaf fall in addition to the collision risk. In some areas of the country – Cornwall is a good example – this is happening already.

The railway must go further, though, and remove all trees tall enough to land on the tracks if they fall, whether inside or outside its boundaries. That this might improve the stability of embankments and cuttings or stop vegetation reaching 25kV overhead lines (thus shorting the contact wire) is a welcome bonus. There will, of course, be opposition, but had the lineside been maintained properly in the first place, these trees would never have grown at all.

Carmont justifiably renewed the railway’s focus on drainage, and this must be continued: if water cannot be prevented from flowing onto the railway, then at the very least it must be able to drain away freely. Ensuring drains are clear and properly maintained may be basic housekeeping, but it can make a difference.

And what of passengers and freight customers? There are no guarantees alternative transport will be available in extreme weather – but what are the actual limits of operation? A precautionary approach is safe, but perhaps a joint Network Rail/ train operator/RSSB working party could establish some absolute‘go/ go slow/don’t go’parameters in a bid to keep more trains running.

INTEGRATED RESILIENCE

There must now be an argument, given the uncertainty of the impact of climate change (except the certainty that there will be an impact) for putting resilience at the heart of all renewals and enhancements to ensure the money being spent will give lasting value.

In some locations it could be as simple as raising equipment cabinets above track level; in others, slab track may reduce maintenance requirements after flooding; elsewhere, larger scale interventions may be needed. There seems little point spending money in the next decade or two on projects climate change renders obsolete, requiring more expenditure.

Putting climate resilience front and centre of renewals and enhancements seems – in the context of what’s coming in the next 50 years – to be a straightforward and sensible decision.

Here, the Committee on Climate Change offers a clue, saying expenditure on climate change resilience can be indirect rather than on a specific location. In other words, expenditure on a nearby or parallel facility can be considered equivalent to or even better than on the asset most immediately affected by climate change. The implication is obvious: consider alternative routes. With sea levels rising and extreme weather predicted to become more serious, many of our coastal and low-lying railways inland are vulnerable to disruption. Where there are alternative routes to the most vulnerable, should they be upgraded? Should alternative routes be built? At what point do you accept that, as with Canute, the tide cannot be turned and a formation should be abandoned? These are hard questions, but they are questions that must be tackled head-on.

Of course, all this costs money, and when it comes to resilience, as towns across the country whose flood defences have been tested recently will testify, the Government seems curiously reticent to invest. Again, tough conversations need to be had on where to allow nature to win, and where to fight it on the beaches, our floodplains and our estuaries. We observe that some coastal counties such as Norfolk have already decided not to add new sea defences where the coast is being eroded.

But if we are to keep our railways open, we do not have that luxury. The Control Period 7 settlement for the 2024-29 funding period has been widely welcomed as a vote of confidence in the railway, but it does represent a small real terms’ reduction on CP6. If the current trend continues, we will see increasing amounts of this money diverted simply to shore up the rail network and keep it open, never mind actively delivering the longer-term work needed to make it resilient. To say there will be hard choices ahead is perhaps an understatement.

Securing the resilience of our rail and other infrastructure networks will not be cheap. It will, however, be far cheaper than continually repairing it every time the weather knocks it out. The climate clock is ticking, and for non-resilient infrastructure, time is surely running out.