An opinion piece by Dr Luke Prendergast, assistant professor in civil engineering at the University of Nottingham.
The UK has an ageing rail network that is under increasing pressure from frequent and extreme weather, triggered by climate change.
Infrastructure maintenance is critical to safety on Britain’s railways, but with 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts and thousands of signals, level crossings and stations, it’s a herculean task. Continuously monitoring and inspecting all parts of our rail infrastructure – while desirable – is nigh on physically and economically impossible for operators to achieve.
Difficult maintenance decisions therefore have to be made, prioritising locations that pose the highest risk of failure – or the greatest consequence associated with failure. For example, a major artery route might be prioritised over a branch line as the consequence of losing this would be greater.
Other factors are also considered. Operators, policymakers and engineers urgently need to work together to find new, cost-effective and innovative technologies that can support more comprehensive infrastructure maintenance.
Rail remains one of the safest forms of transport in the UK, but extreme weather will continue to strain the network in decades to come. How we choose to tackle it could shape not only the future of rail travel, but our entire transport infrastructure.