• Summer heatwaves create worsening conditions for rail transportation

    11 September 2019

    Heatwaves are increasingly becoming a common occurrence throughout Europe during the summer months, with countries like France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Poland, and the Czech Republic experiencing several heatwaves just in 2019.

    In July 2019, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, France, and the UK all reached new record heights of 41.8°C, 41.5°C, 40.8°C, 40.7°C, 45.9°C and 38.7°C respectively. These spikes in temperature not only impacted daily life, but also created disruptions to business operations across the continent, especially for ground-based supply chains. As heatwaves are expected to become more frequent due to rising global temperatures, those shipping by rail throughout Europe should be aware of the increasing challenges caused by the immutable nature of rail infrastructure and plan accordingly.

    Steel rails have an operating range of -10°C to 30°C, so extreme temperatures can result in considerable disruption, as seen during the European summer of 2019. Rail infrastructures were not planned for such extreme changes, especially temporary heat spikes as opposed to a gradual increase in temperatures, over the past 5 years. Heat-related rail disruptions are not restricted to buckling, as extreme temperatures can also cause wire sagging, which for electric lines leads to fraying, and sparking of dry rail vicinities to create fires. Other issues can include interference with rail signals and switches.

    Limited flexibility in high-traffic areas

    In the UK, trains have been forced to reduce their speeds up to 20 mph this summer, leading to delays and cancellations. While aggregated numbers are yet to be reported for this year’s heatwaves, a reduction like this would risk cancellations of up to 1 out of 3 scheduled trains in south and southeast England alone, inclusive of Greater London and the Port of Dover. The delays are triggered by an effort to avoid derailment, as a 125 mph train requires 1.25 miles, or 36 seconds, to stop. UK rail operators have incurred additional GBP 3 million to GBP 15.5 million in expenditures due to delays, according to some estimates.

    In Germany, the Eisenbahn und Verkehrsgewerkschaft (EVG) estimated that 88 trains broke down completely & 111 broke down temporarily on June 26, 2019 alone. In the period between this event and the July 24-26 heatwave, Network Rail recorded a 3 percent cancellation rate for all 610,028 trains that operated in the UK.

    Room for preparation

    According to the World Meteorological Organization, heatwaves will only become longer, more frequent, and more intense in years to come but many rail operators struggle to address their operational consequences. Some have taken to short-term solutions, such as rail painting, to address disruptions as global climate has not radically and permanently changed to the point where rail infrastructure overhauls would be justified financially.

    With global climate getting hotter and with little sign of relief for the immediate future, heat-related ground transportation delays during the Northern Hemisphere summer will be a longer term strategic consideration that will have to be factored into logistics planning. Those shipping by rail in Europe must anticipate the possibility of future disruptions from heatwaves to come and should plan their delivery schedules accordingly. Shippers may do so by following weather forecasts, planning rail cargo shipping in advance, and in anticipation of summer disruption, book contingency capacity.

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