Whatever the weather

Source: Rail Technology Magazine June/July 2013

Weather is going to have an increasing effect on the railways so is going to play a bigger and bigger role in infrastructure and operations planning, due to changes in the climate and the UK’s meteorological conditions. RTM spoke to Met Office rail manager Steven Wallace to find out more.

The railways often find themselves a victim of the weather in this country, especially as it’s not just extreme storms and floods than can cause disruption – plain old British drizzle and leaf fall can cause low adhesion and traction/ braking problems, while overhead lines are often affected by ice in the winter and heat stress in summer.

The Met Office is hoping to offer more services to rail customers to help them with both immediate and longer-term planning for such weather. Steven Wallace, who manages such partnerships with railway businesses for the Met Office, spoke recently at the eighth UK Light Rail Conference in Manchester.

The Met Office and its partners already work with Network Rail, Scotrail, Translink Northern Ireland, Nexus in the North East and others, he said.

Changing climate, changing weather

Speaking to RTM after the event, Wallace told us: “Over the next 15, 20, 30 years, Network Rail’s parameters are going to have to change, because weather is going to change. Down south, you could see a shift over the next 30 years of as much as 10 degrees. So what does that means for the rail industry and what are you going to do to mitigate that risk?

“You might have done a lot of scoping surveys and planning based on the current climate, but as we move forward, that climate is going to change. It’s not a prediction, it’s actually happening. We can see the changes in weather that have occurred over the last 50 years and apply a model to that, looking at the low, medium and high carbon output scenarios and what the climate is going to look like over the long term. The rail industry plans 10, 15 and 20 years down the line, and we can assist as to what the weather’s going to look like in future years.”

He said the biggest threats included drizzle, because of the oxidisation effects on the tracks causing low adhesion, and leaf fall (one of the better-known problems, despite it being seen as something of a joke in the national press), which causes similar effects – extended braking distances, overruns, SPADs, loss of motoring performance and increased journey times. Wind, lightning and ice/heat stress on overhead lines are also common problems.

“It’s not just in the winter that we see extreme weather, we also see it in the summer,” Wallace said.

Specific services

He explained: “The technology we have in place for the rail industry can offer a high-definition, 360-degree view in real time, and forecasts over 24, 36 or 48 hours of what the weather’s going to be like, right down to 1.4-kilometre domains. We can tell them exactly what the weathers going to be within that domain.

“There is a public website, the National Severe Weather Warning Service (NSWWS), that we’re obligated to provide as a government body. That gives a very generic feel of the weather and a top-down overview.

“But when your parameters are more specific, say with leaf fall for the rail industry, that’s something we can tailor for you and offer a bespoke service for your routes and so on.

“We take a unique environmental dataset, couple that with a weather forecasting dataset, put the two together and we can say that the leaves are going to fall off the trees at this date.”

It can also offer data on the likely effects of more complex weather phenomena, such as the ‘weather blocking’ that was a major cause of March’s freezing weather.

“We’ve seen blocks of weather ‘stuck’, so this year we didn’t get January and February’s weather until March, because the winds and jet stream weren’t picking it up and pushing it across. We’ve seen a lot of weather coming in from the east rather than the west.

“We can make these forecasts and tell the rail industry, ‘it’s going to be quite a warm December, but March is going to be particularly cold’. So maybe without that knowledge they would have scaled back resources and so on coming out the tail end of winter, but in fact we can tell them to prepare for unusual weather in March and April, what you would have thought would be coming January and February.”

Preparing for major events

“Then there are the big weather anomalies,” Wallace said, “like the wind we got in Scotland in 2011, or the snow and ice we saw in Scotland a few years ago affecting the main route between Glasgow and Edinburgh, which was shut off for a couple of days.

“We can predict when these incidents will probably occur – these ‘one in a hundred year’ events.

“We can put extreme weather into context, and the climatology and what we’ve seen over the past decade suggests that looking forward, we can expect weather events of that size to happen about one in every ten years.”

Rail-specific information

Most weather-related issues are common to both light and heavy rail, Wallace said, from wind to lightning strikes. So light rail operators and transport bodies are also keen to make use of the Met Office’s services, Wallace suggested.

The ‘OpenRail’ web client, for example, was developed with the Met Office’s customers to show rail-specific information via an interactive map showing rail stations and rail lines, weather layers of interest, infrared satellite data, and rainfall radar imaging.

Weather elements can be colour-coded for clarity, and text warnings are also available.

The services tend to be completely bespoke to each operator or rail business, Wallace said, with different organisations having different priorities in terms of the data they’re most interested in. “That’s simply because of the geography and the topography in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and different parts of England,” he explained.

“It is so varied. On a basic level, the south west of England has more problems with flooding while the far north of Scotland will suffer more from extreme temperatures. It’s all unique, bespoke data – every service is tailored, and people in different parts of the county want to know different things.”


There are no comments. Why not be the first?

Add your comment


rail technology magazine tv

more videos >

latest rail news

Rail depot transformed into hand sanitiser bottling plant

03/04/2020Rail depot transformed into hand sanitiser bottling plant

The Southern Railway team has converted one of its depots into a hand sanitiser bottling plant as they work to meet the needs of colleagues on th... more >
Iconic Glenfinnan viaduct turns blue for the country’s NHS heroes

03/04/2020Iconic Glenfinnan viaduct turns blue for the country’s NHS heroes

The viaduct, which you can see in the Harry Potter series of films, joined other famous attractions and venues like Glasgow’s SSH Hydro in ... more >
Network Rail announces cashflow boost for suppliers

02/04/2020Network Rail announces cashflow boost for suppliers

During the coronavirus crisis, Network Rail is awarding thousands of British firms a crucial boost to their cashflow, by declaring a move to imme... more >

editor's comment

23/01/2018Out with the old...

Despite a few disappointing policy announcements, especially for the electrification aficionados amongst us, 2017 was, like Darren Caplan writes on page 20, a year generally marked by positive news for the rail industry. We polished off the iconic Ordsall Chord (p32), hit some solid milestones on Thameslink (p40), progressed on ambitious rolling stock orders (p16), and finally started moving forward on HS2 (p14) ‒ paving the way for a New Ye... read more >

last word

Encouraging youngsters to be safe on the railway

Encouraging youngsters to be safe on the railway

This summer, Arriva Group's CrossCountry and the Scout Association joined to launch a new partnership to promote rail safety among young people. Chris Leech MBE, business community manager at the... more > more last word articles >

'the sleepers' daily blog

Maximising efficiency requires investment in data, but it’s rewards for rail could be extensive

14/11/2019Maximising efficiency requires investment in data, but it’s rewards for rail could be extensive

Rail Technology Magazine’s Matt Roberts explains the significant role data can play within the future development of the rail industry. Standing as a cornerstone of the UK transport network, the rail industry is forever striving to innovate and maximise efficiency in all aspects of its work. Data is just one such way of achievi... more >
read more blog posts from 'the sleeper' >


The challenge of completing Crossrail

05/07/2019The challenge of completing Crossrail

With a new plan now in place to deliver Crossrail, Hedley Ayres, National Audit Office manager, major projects and programmes, takes a look at ho... more >
Preparing the industry to deliver trains for the future

04/07/2019Preparing the industry to deliver trains for the future

The move to decarbonise the rail network involves shifting to cleaner modes of traction by 2050. David Clarke, technical director at the Railway ... more >
Sunshine future beckons for South Wales Railways, says 10:10 Climate Action’s Leo Murray

02/07/2019Sunshine future beckons for South Wales Railways, says 10:10 Climate Action’s Leo Murray

Smart electrification is the way to boost clean energy resources, argues Leo Murray, director at 10:10 Climate Action. Contractors are clear... more >
Ambition doesn’t have to be expensive, says Midland Connect's Maria Machancoses

02/07/2019Ambition doesn’t have to be expensive, says Midland Connect's Maria Machancoses

The TCR Midlands conference is only days away and tickets are going fast for the sector event of the year at the Vox Conference Centre in Birming... more >

rail industry focus

View all News


Andrew Haines, CE of Network Rail, tells BBC News his organisation could issue future rail franchises

24/06/2019Andrew Haines, CE of Network Rail, tells BBC News his organisation could issue future rail franchises

Andrew Haines, the Chief Executive of Network Rail, has told the Today programme on Radio 4's BBC’s flagship news programme that he wo... more >