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UK: Climate change and the railways – third ‘adaptation report’ published by Network Rail

  • United Kingdom
  • Governments and Infrastructure

18-02-2022

Since the introduction of the ‘adaptation reporting power’ afforded to the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (“Defra”) under the Climate Change Act 2008, Network Rail has (at Defra’s invitation) produced an ‘adaptation report’ every five years summarising its progress towards understanding the potential impacts of climate change on the performance and safety of its rail network, and the actions taken to increase resilience.

The third such ‘adaptation report’ (the “Report”) was published on 28 January 2022.

The Report – key points to note

The key points to note arising from the Report can be summarised as follows:

  • climate governance – the Report outlines Network Rail’s business and corporate governance structure and its engagement with internal and external stakeholders for the purposes of building a railway that is resilient to the impact of extreme weather and climate change;
  • strategies and plans – the Report details the development of the following:
    • the Seasonal Weather Management Strategy - published in 2020 and sets out Network Rail’s ten year weather resilience strategy to improve seasonal and operational weather management;
    • the Weather Risk Task Force - created following independent expert reviews from Lord Robert Mair and Dame Julia Slingo in the wake of the Carmont/Stonehaven derailment in 2020. The task force seeks to improve data and processes to support Network Rail’s operational response to weather events and understanding of asset condition and vulnerability; and
    • actions plans to ensure the robustness of activities;
  • assessment of climate change risk – the Report explains that a harmonised approach to risk assessment methods and results based on the Defra template has been adopted and presents the methodology for scoring relevant risks;
  • interdependencies – the Report includes case study examples which demonstrate the importance of managing interdependent risks with other infrastructure sectors such as the power sector, flood risk management authorities, emergency services and other third parties;
  • key risks from climate change – the Report details the ‘key’ risks based on current and 2050’s/2080’s risk ratings that extreme weather and climate change present to Network Rail’s business as follows:
    • precipitation – the Report notes that with the exception of snowfall, which is expected to decrease in frequency, Network Rail is planning for increased impacts from winter rainfall, summer storm and drought risk as their frequency and intensity rise. Rain and snow can increase the risk of slips and falls, earthworks failures have the potential to damage other railway assets and derail trains, and disruptions to services can increase stress of passengers and staff;
    • sea level risk and coastal erosion and flooding – the Report notes that as terrain continues to adjust, sea level rise will be greater in the south than the north, but all UK regions will see significant changes. This will increase incidences of asset damage and service disruption, leading to greater costs and is the most significant climate risk to coastal operations;
    • temperature – the Report notes that Network Rail expects the impacts associated with cold temperatures to reduce and the effects of high temperatures to increase which could include derailment due to track buckle;
    • storm and wind events – the Report notes that wind is currently Network Rail’s single biggest weather-related cost. While projections have not been included it is expected that storm and wind events are likely to increase as our climate changes. Storm and wind cause additional costs by way of repairs and can pose significant safety risks to staff and passengers including injury from asset failures damaging trains, staff working to prevent or respond to events in poor weather or flying debris;
  • adaptation actions and progress – the Report outlines the work undertaken over the past five years, progress in addressing the climate adaptation challenge and planned actions to increase resilience by:
    • reinforcing progress in governance, policy, and strategy over the short and long-term;
    • improving understanding of risks through analysis and research into the financial, safety and performance impacts of weather and climate; and
    • exploring new methods of adaptation planning, collaboration on best practice and responding to reviews and recommendations.

Comment

Railway operations are vulnerable to weather disruption as has been seen a number of times during the winter of 2021/22 and the safety risks from incidents such as weather caused earthwork failure are real. The Report provides a valuable insight into Network Rail’s prudent and comprehensive approach to planning and preparing the railways for managing these issues and risks in the future in the context of potential increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events associated with climate change.