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Railroads are under severe threat from climate change. Environmental engineers have some ideas on how to combat it

Railroads are under severe threat from climate change. Environmental engineers have some ideas on how to combat it

Leah Campbell

Many people still rely heavily on railroads to transport goods and people. However, the railway infrastructure from overhead wires to tracksis at risk from climate change. 

Experts in transportation planning and civil engineering warn that the railway industry will be unable to adapt to future climate risks. This will lead to a degrading infrastructure, safety hazards, and skyrocketing operating costs. 

Many argue that nature-based solutionsprojects that harness natural power to address social or environment problems could offer practical and economical ways for railways to reduce the effects of extreme weather while also providing environmental benefits.

Railways have so far not been able to take advantage these strategies.

A newStudyUniversity of Glasgow researchers have reviewed industry efforts to date to implement nature-based solutions to climate change disruptions. The researchers identified several possible nature-based solutions railroads could employ, including green corridors that shade tracks from heat and high wind, habitat restoration to mitigate the effects of storms, and wetlands that soak up water during heavy rainfall and sustain it through drought.

Lorraine Blackwood, a doctoral student at Glasgow in environmental sustainability and the study’s lead author, said that such strategies would also create habitats for wildlife, reduce noise, air pollution, improve water quality, and provide privacy for track-side neighbours.

Blackwood and her colleagues did find several examples of railways using nature-based solutions, but their review suggests that there is still much to be done.

She said that it is still early days. It is still early days to trust and test these solutions in the railway environment.

Railroad Infrastructure is at Risk from Extreme Weather

Extreme weather caused by climate change, such as hot and cold, wet and dry, presents serious challenges to railway infrastructure. Heat waves can cause tracks and other infrastructure to buckle or expand, allowing for train derailments. Frozen overhead power lines can also be damaged by freezing. Flooding can cause embankments to be eroded and can block trains. Droughts can cause subsidence and dry soils, which can lead to tracks becoming misaligned.  

WhenHurricane IdaIn 2021, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, Amtrak Northeast corridor, the nation’s busiest train route, was closed for an entire morning. After the storm, more than 75 million gallons and 100 Olympic-sized swimming pool-sized pools of water were removed from the New York City subways.

Flooding is only going to get worse due to a changing climate. RecentStudyIt is predicted that Boston’s commuter train system will operate at 40 percent less capacity in the next ten years due to increased flooding.

Railroads face another engineering challenge in extreme heat. Steel tracks are designed to work within a narrow temperature range. Rails can buckle and expand if it gets too hot. This can lead to a train getting derail. Most routes have speed restrictions for trains that experience heat waves to prevent this kind of disaster. However, this strategy comes with its limitations. This is a2019 StudyResearchers estimated that delays due to temperature-related speed limits reductions could cost the U.S. railway network as much as $60 billion by 2100.

Railroads are at greater risk than the direct effect of one line or the effects of a single hurricane. Climate change could cause a shift in the balance of different modes of transport in ways that are hard to predict. Experts suggest that changing water levels in Great Lakes could lead to more goods being transported by train than by barge. A single weather event can also cause major disruptions to the entire network, affecting both industries and people’s daily lives.

Furthermore, the track running through the United States is over 100 years of age. These systems were constructed with outdated standards of construction, making them more vulnerable to failure. Any repairs or retrofits could prove prohibitively costly.  

Adapting to climate change has been a major focus of railroad efforts. These solutions have been known as grey infrastructure. They include elevating stations, installing pumps and sea walls, and stabilizing hillsides near railway tracks. Boston, for instance, spent $2.5 billion to adapt to climate change. Close to $2 MillionLast year, barriers were put in at a station susceptible to flooding.

Blackwood stated that this is not an attractive or sustainable solution. Even from a mitigation standpoint, grey solutions like concrete and steel are very carbon-intensive.

Green Opportunities for Adaptation

This is where systems that work in harmony with nature, often referred to simply as green infrastructure, come in.

Blackwood said that nature-based solutions provide many benefits to people.

Furthermore, although grey solutions can be costly and inflexible, green infrastructure can be more adaptable.

Michael Martello is a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in civil engineering and environmental engineering. He points out that depending on the climate scenario, sea level rise could be anywhere from less then a foot to over eighteen feet by the century’s end. Martello stated that this is a wide range to design against.

He stated that green infrastructure can help reduce some of that uncertainty. Vegetation only grows stronger with age as trees and plants grow. Grey infrastructure, on the other hand, is more susceptible to degradation over time.

Martello stated that there are many roadblocks to widespread green infrastructure use.

Martello stated that a public agency that manages any type of rail network will generally just have the right-of-way. There is a great jurisdictional barrier, and there is obviously a lot more interagency collaboration that needs to be done.

In the United States, there is not one national railway. This contrasts with Britain, where the researchers are originally from. Instead, railroads operate primarily through private companies. Martello said that railroad operators prefer tried-and-true methods from an economic perspective.

Blackwood agreed that planners may be misled by concerns about safety and a lack familiarity with nature-based options. Grey engineering projects, however, are more technical. She said that working on an existing track can be difficult due to space and land use restrictions, which can make it difficult to try out new designs.

Paul Chinowsky, a professor of civil Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, stated that it is difficult to implement nature-based solutions, especially in the United States due to the sheer size of the network. Chinowsky, like Martello, said that private companies are not encouraged to use untested strategies. They also don’t have the incentive to keep them.

Chinowsky said that while a natural solution can be a great idea, someone has to keep it going, especially for the first few years.

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He pointed out that green infrastructure projects have a lifetime benefit and require minimal maintenance. They are also expensive to maintain. MoreThese solutions can be difficult to maintain, he stated, in order to compete with cutting-edge engineering technologies.  

Chinowsky said that you have a perception problem that a nature-based solution is going in the wrong direction. It is a perception that anything that needs more maintenance is going towards the bottom line.

Experts warn that railways are facing climate change threats and will require a variety if approaches. They will also need to find ways that grey infrastructure can be tied to nature-based solutions. Although it is difficult to put new projects on older tracks due to their long lifespan, it also means there is plenty of time for recouping the initial costs. Martello explained that it is like an insurance policy in which companies pay now to avoid disruptions.

I believe it is crucial that we continue to explore natural solutions. These natural solutions can be put in some great places, stated Chinowsky. You can afford to invest when you have a 75-year lifespan and a 50-year old.

He suggested that the United States should also consider other countries like Britain that are more advanced in adaption to learn from their experiences.

Blackwood stated that railways have been built in the same way for 180 year, so there is a lot to be done to change and improve some of the traditional attitudes and ways of doing things.

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