Armstrong, John and Preston, John
Rail in the context of climate change: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
In, 12th World Conference on Transport Research, Lisbon, PT,
11 - 15 Jul 2010.
Rail is one of the oldest of our mechanised transport modes, having been in existence in something resembling its current form for almost two centuries. Since the early 20th century, its dominant position has largely been ceded to road and air transport, although it has retained a steady volume, if much diminished share, of the overall transport market, with particular strengths in the commuter market in large cities, medium-distance inter-city travel, and bulk freight. In recent decades, the development of high-speed passenger services has enabled rail to compete very effectively with air travel over distances of up to 800km, and to dominate routes such as London – Paris/Brussels and Paris – Lyon. Similarly, the containerisation of freight services has provided rail with a significant advantage in the intermodal market, as it is very well-suited to the movement of large numbers of containers between ports and their hinterlands.
The issue of climate change remains somewhat controversial, and presents significant political challenges in terms of convincing political leaders and voters that its long-term consequences merit intervention, with the resulting effects on developed-world lifestyles, within the timescale of the typical electoral cycle. However, there is an increasing scientific consensus that the issue and effects of climate change are real, that human activities are a contributory factor, and that efforts are required both to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and to mitigate the effects of climate changes that are occurring now, and are likely to continue to occur for at least decades into the future, irrespective of the efforts made now to reduce greenhouse emissions.
The transport sector, including rail, is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and is also a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Rail?s vulnerability takes several forms: constraints on horizontal and, especially, vertical track alignments mean that it is typically more dependent on earthworks than other modes, many of which are now quite old, and are thus vulnerable to increased levels and intensity of rainfall; the buckling of rails under the influence of increased summer temperatures is a problem; and low-lying coastal alignments, such as some of those in the south-west of England, are vulnerable to sea-level rise. However, these issues can be addressed with the necessary interventions and investment, and rail is perhaps less vulnerable than other modes to regulatory intervention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since it is relatively energy-efficient and, on electrified routes, can already use renewable energy sources.
This paper examines rail?s strengths and weaknesses in the face of climate change, and compares them with those of other, competing transport modes; it then examines the opportunities for, and threats to, rail as a result of climate change, and draws some conclusions about the possible future role and significance of railways.
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