Climate challenge to railways

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The climate has always presented a challenge to railway builders, not least when the Trans-Siberian was being laid across East Russia. Copious amounts of dynamite was necessary to make an impression on land gripped by permafrost, and was used to create a bed for sleepers and rails.

Now the permafrost that provided such a firm foundation in the past is melting under the increasing temperatures of this - the coldest region of asia. Lines, bridges, buildings are all endangered as their foundations turn to mud and water.

This warming is happening so fast that even the recently built high speed line from China into Tibet is threatened as Tibetan plateau permafrost also melts.

In Japan climate change presents a more subtle danger. Japan lies on the Pacific ’rim of fire’ and experiences regular earthquakes and tremors. Increasingly intense storm events and sea-level rise can exert new forces on the earths crust, adding to the risk of seismic activity.

In Japan the railway sector is part of the seismic monitoring system. Sensors measuring changes in salts dissolved in groundwater below the rails measure subtle (and intense) earth movements and are linked to earthquake warning systems.

As climate change intensifies so will the threats to railway infrastructure.

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Infrastructure

These threats are an important issue for the railway sector. UIC has a project called Adapting Railway Infrastructure to Climate Changes (ARISCC). Railways from different regions of the world are working together to find out how they can be better prepared for these threats. The railways are also working together to learn how to be more resilient in the face of these challenges and how to recover quickly from damage caused by changes to the weather.

One method is so called vulnerability mapping. In the event of flooding for example the railways will know where problems are most likely to occur and concentrate their resources most effectively at those points.