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Adaptation option

Operation and construction measures for ensuring climate-resilient railway infrastructure

Railway represents an energy efficient transport mode with a comparatively small environmental impact, which favours railway transport in the implementation of the long-term neutral-carbon transport strategy. This is also related to the potential of rail to mitigate climate change, since the growth of rail transport would result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. However, this potential can only be realized if railways are adapted to withstand impacts associated with climate change.

One of the most critical vulnerabilities in the railway transport system is the low flexibility of both infrastructure and operations in the event of disturbances. The rail transport system also depends on other types of infrastructure. For instance disturbances in the power supply due to extreme weather events directly influence the functionality of the railway transport system. Due to the long lifetime of rail infrastructure, which is expected to operate at full capacity for more than 50 years (and even longer, for some installations), it is appropriate to integrate climate change aspects into the long-term railway planning, design and management process. The Rail Adapt Report vision (UIC, 2017) considers the adaptation process of railway as part of the business as usual development scenario so that the cost of adaptation has only a marginal impact of the financial performance of a railway company.

Climate change risks for the railway industry have been thoroughly described by the ARISCC project (Adaptation of Railway Infrastructure to Climate Change), implemented by the consortium led by UIC (International Union of Railways). The outcomes of ARISCC comprise natural hazard maps and the guidance document on integrated natural hazard management on railways. The identified climate change effects affecting railway can be distinguished into three main categories, each requiring specific sets of adaptation measures:

  • Extreme weather events, such as heavy rain (and associated flooding), high wind speeds, storms, cyclones, severe winter weather, etc. According to Defra´s 2011 Transport Resilience Review both infrastructure and operational resilience should be developed in particular using available network redundancy and redirection routes, and should be complemented with effective systems to restore services and routes to normal conditions. Communication with stakeholders to minimize the impact of disruption on people and businesses is also essential.
  • Slow onset events having gradual impact on the railway transport, like the increase of air temperature or sea level rise. Adaptation response should be implemented within long-term transport development strategies.
  • Other natural hazards triggered by climate change, including landslides, rock falls, avalanches, decrease in embankment stability etc. Structural protection measures combined with vulnerability assessment and disaster risk reduction systems would suitably respond to such challenges.

The “Guidebook for Enhancing Resilience of European Rail Transport in Extreme Weather Events, produced by the MOWE-IT project, splits responses to extreme weather events into long-term planning measures, actions to be taken immediately before the event and recovery actions. The guidebook “Urban Rail, Climate Change and Resilience”, developed by the International Public Transport Union (UITP), focuses on adaptation responses to prevent and restore damages caused by climate hazards on individual sub-systems of city railway, such as: power supply, tracks, rolling stocks, stations, tunnels, level crossings and maintenance facilities. The main recommendations provided by these resources include:

  • Incorporate climate change projections into the design and capacity of drainage to cope with projected future flooding frequency and magnitude. In the UK for example, the drainage standards include allowances for impact from future climate in the design of railway assets: for new and remediated railway drainage, a 20% increase in the estimated flow is added.
  • Improve wind resilience of catenary masts and keep areas close to tracks and catenaries free from hazardous objects. Even though many operational failures are caused by trees fallen to track or catenaries, vegetation is often used as a buffer zone for noise and pollution along railway tracks and also to protect the track from direct insulation. Ecosystem based measures increasing resilience to wind (e.g. trees able to withstand high wind speeds) should therefore be preferred.
  • Install spare and emergency capacity for the safety and operational systems (pass-by trucks, switches, operation on opposite lane) to back up the capacity affected by extreme weather.
  • Develop strategies minimizing the impact of operational failures caused by extreme weather conditions (special timetables, rerouting models), and provide replacement of services if needed (e.g. bus transport)
  • Provide real-time information to passenger and maintain communication with important institutions

Increase in temperature may not be seen as a major problem for railway transport in regions which are already coping with such conditions (southern Europe); however, in Northern Europe resilience to high summer temperatures should be increased. Rail buckling, increased risk of fires of vegetation, installation of cooling systems and other systems for passenger comfort are concerns relating to heat in the future railway transport system. The respective adaptation responses should combine technical solutions (e.g. increased heat resistance of switches and the safety system), ecosystem based measures (e.g. vegetation protecting from direct sun) and monitoring and early warning systems.

Another aspect of rail vulnerability relies in reduced soil stability triggered by climate change impacts, such as heavy precipitation or temperature fluctuation. The occurrence of landslides, rock falls or avalanches, affecting mainly mountainous areas, imposes the need for the implementation of structural protection measures, such as dikes and embankments. These measures may have multiple benefits as they may protect also settlements or other infrastructure such as roads or energy supply networks. As the implementation of structural measures for the whole railway system of mountain countries is often not feasible for both economic reasons and aspects of nature and landscape protection, there is a strong need for additional (non-structural) risk reduction measures, such as the provision of early warning systems, traffic redirection, etc., above mentioned.

Additional Details
Reference information

Adaptation Details

IPCC categories

Structural and physical: Engineering and built environment options, Structural and physical: Technological options

Stakeholder participation

The implementation of measures aimed at increasing resilience of railway transport is normally managed by railway companies, as for examples OBB in Austria or DB in Germany. These actors are supported by public administrations operating at the regional, national or even European level (e.g. EC DG MOVE), which provides legislative, administrative and financial support for adaptation activities. The technical implementation of measures is carried out by design and construction companies specializing in transport. All these stakeholders are supported by research institutions and consultancy providing vulnerability assessment, prioritization of measures, feasibility studies and cost-benefit analysis. Actors delivering weather forecasting and early warning systems (e.g. ZAMG in Austria) are also important stakeholders to be involved.

Success and Limiting Factors

Due to the long lifespan of railway infrastructure, the implementation of adaptation measures shall be part of the overall process of railway development and/or modernization. More in general, it should be incorporated into long-term transport strategies, within which rail is expected to play an important role. This can ensure availability of needed financial resources. Besides lack of funds, other factors which can hinder railway development and adaptation are related to possible conflicts with environmental protection goals, mainly related to landscape fragmentation, and possible conflicts with local communities concerned about increased noise pollution and land take.

Most advantageous adaptation measures are those that provide synergies with other measures leading to additional benefits, for example, contributing to climate change mitigation, fostering sustainable development and improving biodiversity protection. In this perspective nature based solutions could be used in adaptation of the rail system in a variety of ways. Some trees withstand higher wind speeds than others, small meandering water courses could buffer high water levels better than man-made drainage systems and selection of suitable vegetation for near the rail corridor could reduce the risk of fires.

Measures acting counterproductively from the environmental viewpoint should not be considered, unless required by safety regulation. For instance, increase in the use of air-conditioning systems to cool indoor spaces should be limited as much as possible to limit the production to greenhouse gas emissions. Measures to reduce the vulnerability to falling trees by establishing wider rail corridors may be counterproductive for some other objectives. A wider corridor can result in larger temperature differences in the track zone and this may challenge future objectives to reduce vulnerability to fires or rail buckling unless these problems are not addressed.

Costs and Benefits

The main benefit of adaptation measures is climate change resilient railway infrastructure and operation, ensuring connectivity of transport network with implications to economic prosperity and welfare. Besides, the auxiliary benefits of adaptation measures are contribution to sustainable development and climate change mitigation (transport mode shift towards rail leads to decrease in greenhouse gas emissions). Also other synergies and co-benefits of adaptation measures beyond the environmental field are desirable. For instance, structural protection measures may, apart from protecting railway track, also protect settlements or other infrastructure such as roads or energy supply.

Costs vary consistently according to the selected measures, their specific design, the scale of application, specific conditions of the locality where the measures are implemented, climate challenges addressed and many other factors. The costs are primarily covered by the railway company; co-financing may be provided from the public budget, European financial instruments and other sources.

International transport by rail is governed by several intergovernmental conventions and within the European Union by several EU Regulations and Directives. The main strategic document of the EU relevant for the climate change adaptation of transport is the White Paper on Transport “Roadmap to a single European transport area – towards a competitive and resource-efficient transport system".

Implementation Time

Typical time needed for the implementation of the technical measures is several years (approximately 2-5 years). Implementation of operational measures, however, must be fast and react promptly to the disturbance caused by extreme events. The provision of weather forecast and early warning systems is continuous.

Life Time

Lifetime of technical measures should comply with the lifetime of railway infrastructure itself, which is several decades.

Reference information


Armstrong, J., Preston, J., Hood, I., (2016). Adapting Railways to Provide Resilience and Sustainability. Engineering Sustainability 170(4).

Lindgren, J., Jonson, D.K., Carlsson-Kanyama A., (2009). Climate Adaptation of Railways: Lessons from Sweden. European Journal of Transport and Infrastructure Research 9(2).

Guidebook for Enhancing Resilience of European Rail Transport in Extreme Weather Events. FP7 Project outcome: Management of Weather Events in the Transport System (MOWE-IT). March 2014.

DEFRA (2011). Climate Resilient Infrastructure: Preparing for a Changing Climate.

UIC (2017). Rail Adapt - Adapting the railway for the future.

UITP (2017). Urban rail, climate change and resilience.

Published in Climate-ADAPT Feb 10 2021   -   Last Modified in Climate-ADAPT Dec 12 2023

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