Railway Network Issues

Railway networks are a critical means of both transport for passengers and for the movement of freight through countries and overseas. This has been an important mode of transport for over a century and a half, however railway networks in many countries are facing some serious issues, one of which is climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict that in the coming years and decades, there will be an increase in adverse weather events, storms, flooding tidal surges, heat waves, droughts and increases in precipitation, depending on the geographical location 1). Below are some examples of how this issue is being tackled around the world:

Konkan Rail Network, India

The Konkan Railway Network runs on the western coast of India, in the provinces of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. This network connects Mumbai to other large cities such as Mangalore, is 760 kilometres in length, has 59 stations and 179 major bridges which it crosses. Due to the high amounts of precipitation that occurs in this area, along with an increase in adverse weather events authorities decided to implement adaptation strategies in order to make the network safer after several major accidents and to reduce infrastructure damage. Many of these events occurred due to soil slipping and landslides due to large amounts of rainfall 2).


Konkan Railway 3)

After extensive studies, it was determined that the major issue facing the network was soil and boulder slippage due to an increase in rainfall. In order to adapt to this problem, authorities came up with a number of measures to reduce the risk of major loss of life and severe infrastructure damage by using the following techniques, dependent on geological features of each area:

  • Flattening of slopes and cuttings.
  • Installation of boulder nets.
  • Soil nailing.
  • Installation of wire mesh to loose areas.
  • Creation of berms.
  • Planting of vegetation to increase soil integrity.

The entire rail network was mapped and a matrix was used in order to determine the areas that were at risk. This was done firstly by historical data indicating where previous slippages had occurred, and secondly by using climate change models and geophysical data to predict where possible events could occur. It was determined that the most critical areas were around the entrance and exits of tunnels and cuttings, and nearly 80% of all of the work was concentrated in these areas. The adaptation and remedial work that was performed on the rail network showed an immediate reduction in soil and boulder slippage. The network was more stable, and there was a marked reduction in infrastructure damage and accidents. These results however are only preliminary, and it remains to be seen whether this is an option which may be viable in the long term. The IPCC list the work which was done on this network as one of the successful climate change adaptation measures worldwide 4).

Melbourne, Australia

The Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency of Australia published a series of guidelines for the Melbourne Rail Network in 2011. This paper was designed to produce a number of strategies in order to adapt to climate change and rapid population growth. In the previous years the network suffered from a series of delays due to extreme hot weather and the Australian Government decided to conduct a study. The greater Melbourne Rail Network has over 800 kilometres of electrified railways tracks, over 200 stations, 170 level crossings and around 70 power stations. This railway track is also shared with freight trains. In the years 2009 and 2010 there were a series of heatwaves in the summer, with temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius on some days, leading to the halt of the entire network. This occurred due to insufficient air conditioning in the trains and also damage to the tracks due to twisting from the heat. It was determined that the air conditioning units which were fitted to the trains were not capable of handling conditions over 35 degrees Celsius, and that the track warping was being caused by timber sleepers being deformed in the heat. The study focussed on eight possible strategies in order to avoid future network delays and cancellations. These measures were:

  • Replacing all timber sleepers with concrete sleepers
  • Installing new air conditioning units that could cope with temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius
  • Installation of regenerative braking, which stores energy used whilst braking and re uses it
  • Replacing and re-tensioning electrical cables to gain better efficiency
  • Improving the electronic capabilities of signalling and level crossings
  • Try to influence commuter behaviour by using early warning systems such as SMS when extreme weather is imminent
  • Improved customer comfort during heat waves, eg providing shade and water
  • Providing alternate means of transport when train network cannot be used, eg buses


Melbourne Rail Network 5)

Each of these strategies were considered using a cost benefit analysis, and whilst there were perceived benefits to all of the strategies, when talking economically, regenerative braking and the tensioning of the electrical lines were the most cost effective. The replacement of air conditioning would undoubtedly make conditions more comfortable for the customers, however this would do little to combat the effects of extreme heat on the network. The best strategy when it comes to reducing delays and cancellations were found to be the replacement of the concrete sleepers and the improvement of the signalling and level crossings 6).


In 2011 the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in conjunction with the International Union of Railways conducted a study called the 'Climate Change Adaptation at European Railway Infrastructure Companies'. This study aimed to find potential measures to safeguard railways networks across Europe from the potential future effects of climate change. The aim was to firstly determine what measures were needed and which could be used sustainably over a long period of time. Some of the possible impacts were identified as:

  • Higher than normal temperatures causing infrastructure damage, such as the twisting of railway tracks, signal failure and train overheating
  • Higher than usual levels of precipitation could cause flooding, soil erosion, land slipping, flooding and desiccation, causing significant damage to infrastructure
  • Adverse weather events such as storms and high winds could cause infrastructure damage by falling trees and branches, cause flooding due to storm surges, destroy supporting vegetation and also disrupt the electrical systems

The study concluded that initially mapping and identifying the areas that had the potential to be affected was the first priority. Once this has been completed, it was advised that certain adaptive measures could be implemented, such as improving critical infrastructure, planting extra vegetation to support slopes from slippage, the use of higher grade steel for railway tracks to avoid warping and the upgrading of rolling stock that an better cope with adverse weather 7).


As the awareness around climate change starts to increase, it is evident that many countries are now putting in serious amounts of time and effort in order to find ways to adapt to the imminent impacts. As it is too late to mitigate climate change, it is important that we choose the correct adaptive measures. The three case studies above all have similar solutions and ways in which they have gone about finding these solutions, although the financial costs of some of the measures may be beyond what is realistic in this day and age. Soft measures such as the planting of extra vegetation may be one of the better and cost effective measures, and can also have ecological benefits to the surrounding ecological systems. This may not always be an option, and as aforementioned, it is highly critical that correct choices are made, because the wrong choice will end up costing significantly more in the long term. Railway networks are a very important facet of most countries and is relied upon for freight movement and is also a contributor to the nations economies, so more research should be conducted into the best adaptive measures where possible.

Environment | Transport

Garg, A., Nasa, P. & Shukla, P.R. 2013, ‘Impact Assessment and Management Framework for Infrastructure Assets: A Case Study of Konkan Railways’, United Nations Environment Programme, Available: http://www.unep.org/Transport/lowcarbon/Pdf's/ImpactAssessment.pdf
Konkan Train by PP Yoonus, licence CC 3.0, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Konkan_Railway_72.jpg
Mitra, A., Chopde, S., Kumar, A. & Wajih, S.A. 2008, ‘Climate Change Adaptation Activities in India, United Nations Development Programme, Available: http://www.undp.org/content/dam/india/docs/climate_change_adaptation_activities_in_india_part_i.pdf
Melbourne Train Tracks by Alex Proimos, licence CC 2.0, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Train_Tracks_of_Melbourne_(6760061751).jpg
Australian Government, Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, 2011, 'Adaptation of Melbourne’s Metropolitan Rail Network in Response to Climate Change', Available: http://www.climatechange.gov.au/sites/climatechange/files/documents/08_2013/adaptation-options-rail-case-study.pdf
UNECE, 2011, 'Climate Change Adaptation at European Railway Infrastructure Companies', Available: http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/trans/doc/2011/wp5/ECE-TRANS-WP5-GE3-02-PPP-03-UIC_ARISCC.pdf

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