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Changing climate poses 'serious threat' to UK transport networks

The famous landslide scene in The Railway Children could become a regular sight in future, as scientists warn of the effect climate change will have on the UK’s 10,000 kilometres of railway embankments and cuttings.

Friday 22 October 2010

Engineers are increasingly concerned about the future of the UK’s transport network. With some infrastructure dating back to the nineteenth century when it was built on unprepared foundations, the threat of landslides and subsidence is likely to worsen.

‘Railways are a unique problem in the UK because they were built before we understood soil mechanics. They’re very susceptible to changing climate’ says Fleur Loveridge, who co-authored a paper published today (Friday 22 October) in a thematic issue of the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, devoted to the effects of climate change on land stability.

Changing climate is likely to cause more extreme weather patterns, including wetter winters and drier summers. Both conditions are bad news for roads and railways, including London’s underground network. In total, the UK has around 20,000 kilometres of embankments and cuttings – land which is either built up or cut through to allow a road or railway to pass through.

‘Because they’re structures made of soil and rock, they will always be affected by climate – particularly rainfall patterns’ says Loveridge. ‘Wet winters cause failures that can result in landslides, as we saw in 2000 – 2001, and hot dry summers can cause subsidence which can also be significant, affecting domestic properties as well’.

All of which means travel chaos like that caused by the storms which battered Britain in the winter of 2000 – 2001 could become increasingly common. The storms caused widespread travel disruption, including a landslide that blocked the Edinburgh to Glasgow rail route, many station closures and delays as trees fell onto railway tracks. And extremely hot weather in the summer of 2003 caused numerous speed restrictions as shrinking and swelling of rail embankments caused vertical movements of the track.

‘One of the most at risk areas, because of the geology, is the South East of England, particularly the London clay on which much of London’s rail network is built’, says Loveridge.

Engineers are now working on finding solutions to avoid problems before they occur.

‘The key word is “adaptation”’, says Loveridge. ‘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 which needs to be addressed. Proactive planning for climate change adaption offers much better value for the tax payer than bearing the huge costs when things go wrong’.

Full bibliographic information

F. A. Loveridge, T. W. Spink, A. S. O'Brien, K. M. Briggs, D. Butcher, 'The impact of climate and climate change on infrastructure slopes, with particular reference to southern England', Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, Volume 43, Part 4., November 2010 pp. 461 - 472.

Notes for editors

Fleur Loveridge is studying for a PhD at the school of Civil Engineering and the Environment, University of Southampton.
Email: [email protected]

The project was carried out by Mott MacDonald and the University of Southampton, and funded by Network Rail and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).