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25 October 2010

Climate change could throw rail network off track

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Study predicts embankments and cuttings will be increasingly susceptible to floods and landslides caused by wetter winters and warmer summers

Scientists reckon Britain's rail network will face increasing risk of disruption as extreme weather events linked to climate change become more common.

According to a new study published late last week in the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, the UK's 20,000 kilometres of embankments and cuttings will face an increased liklihood of landslides and floods as a result of the predicted rise in extreme weather events.

A team from the University of Southampton and Network Rail found that incidents leading to rail delays of more than eight hours were far higher during the wet winter of 2000-2001 when storms caused widespread travel disruption.

More recently, a landslide in June forced a train derailment on Scotland's West coast and injured eight people, while last November a Dorset railway line was blocked by around 40 tonnes of falling rock.

The researchers warned that "travel chaos" would ensue if, as many scientists predict, climate change increases the frequency of such incidents.

London's long-suffering commuters will perhaps not be surprised that the South East is expected to feel the worst effects as much of the network is built on soft London clay.

Lead author Fleur Loveridge said that roads and the London Underground would also be affected, but argued that railways faced a "unique problem" in the form of cuttings and embankments.

"Railways were built before we understood soil mechanics [so] they're very susceptible to changing climate," she said. "Wet winters cause failures that can result in landslides … and hot dry summers can cause subsidence which can also be significant."


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