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UK railways cannot cope with climate crisis, says rail boss

The Guardian logo The Guardian 07/11/2019 Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Services from Liverpool Street station in London were among those cancelled due to hot weather in July. © PA Services from Liverpool Street station in London were among those cancelled due to hot weather in July.

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Britain’s railways can no longer cope with the effects of the climate crisis, a senior rail executive has warned.

Extreme weather events including heatwaves, storms and flooding have damaged infrastructure and halted thousands of services across the UK this year.

Alex Hynes, the managing director of Scotland’s railway, said more investment would be needed to future-proof the railway against rising temperatures.

“The railway in this country can no longer cope because of climate change,” he said.

Calling for more to be done on decarbonising rail, he told the Railway Industry Association conference in London: “We have a vested interest in making this work.”

In July, hot weather forced trains to run at maximum speeds of 20mph (32km/h) on parts of the railway network, resulting in many services being cancelled and rail operators telling people not to travel.


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Trains were slowed due to the risk of tracks buckling in the heat and causing a derailment. Extreme temperatures can also result in overhead electric lines drooping and being damaged by trains.

Hynes said the rail industry needed to build tracks resilient at 40C (104F) in the rest of the UK and 35C in Scotland. Steel in rails is currently stress-tested at 28C.

More than 1,000 trains were cancelled in Scotland alone due to record temperatures in summer 2018. This was reduced to 200 in 2019 despite an even hotter summer, after a £4m investment in track resilience.

Hynes suggested the rail industry should see the commercial opportunity in the climate emergency and tell passengers when they are taking a greener form of transport. “There is money to be made … We need to tell people they are on an electric train,” he said.

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However, Anthony Smith, the chief executive of Transport Focus, told the conference that according to the independent passenger watchdog’s research, most passengers would prefer an on-time diesel to a late-running electric train.

Although railways have long been susceptible to weather-associated delays, from snow in winter to problems with wet leaves in autumn, Network Rail is expecting to invest billions more to mitigate the effects of more frequent and extreme events.

Much of its most recent climate change adaptation plan was written in the aftermath of extensive flooding in 2015, including the closure of the Devon-Cornwall line after the track was washed away at Dawlish. Heavy rainfall and flooding remain the most significant problems in parts of the rail network, notably Wales.

However, Network Rail data for 2018-19 showed total delays ascribed to high temperatures surpassed the combined total of flooding, snow, fog and cold even before the more widespread disruption in July.

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