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Could a cold winter spell disaster for trains?

21st November 2018


Weather Watch 2018: Could a Cold Winter Spell Disaster For Trains?

 2018 enjoyed one of the hottest summers on record for the UK, but the milder weather isn’t set to continue. Meteorologists are predicting that 2018 could be one of the coldest winters the country has ever seen, plunging the UK into Arctic conditions.

While many people enjoy the prettiness of a snowy scene, and children certainly like to build snowmen, a thick covering of the white stuff isn’t welcomed by all. Heavy snow, ice and even heavy storms can all cause chaos for the transport system, throwing plans into disarray.

Many types of public transport are affected by cold weather, but trains are possibly the most vulnerable. So, with a harsh 2018 winter ahead, are trains likely to be facing a disaster?

Weather predictions for 2018

Experts are predicting that the winter of 2018 will be very cold, with parts of the UK suffering temperatures that are as low as -11C. The so-called Big Freeze of 2011-2012 is likely to pale into insignificance compared to the weather that’s being forecast with advance warnings of frozen air travelling from the North Pole.

The Weather Company, the largest commercial forecaster in the world has predicted a freezing December with the cold snap extending to January and February. The Met Office hasn’t yet issued a long-range forecast but agrees that stretching into December, temperatures are likely to be colder than usual.

A weak jet stream is being blamed as one of the main reasons for the cold weather as it allows cold air from the Arctic to trickle down. This combined with the sun entering a phase of “solar minimum” creates the conditions which allow cold temperatures to prevail.

Why are trains so badly affected?

Ice and snow present particular problems for the train system because of the way in which they operate. To keep moving trains rely on overhead wiring and electric rails while signaling points are important too.

The problem is that all of these can easily become covered in ice which prevents power from reaching the train. Snow exacerbates the problem even further and when compacted, often turns into blocks of ice which don’t easily melt.

Cold temperatures can cause other problems too, such as sticking the steel rails together or jamming the train doors and preventing them from opening.

The problems that can be caused by snow and ice are fairly catastrophic for the train service, and passengers are likely to experience serious disruption and delays. However, it’s not just these extreme weather conditions that affect services.

Wind, heavy rain and storms are more common in the UK, but in some situations, these can be disastrous for the trains too.

Flooding can wash away the bed of ballast which lies under the tracks; this makes the rails temporarily unsafe to use. Heavy rain and floodwater can also cause the system to short-circuit, leaving trains without power and potentially stranded mid-route.

High winds can be extremely problematic and cause a variety of issues. At the most severe end, gusts can blow down masts or cause trees to fall and hit power lines. Even if the winds don’t reach gale-force severity, they can blow debris and vegetation onto the tracks.

With trains relying on clear tracks, uninterrupted power flow between the wiring track and train, plus the free movement of signals, there really is a variety of potential problems which can arise. For those relying on train services, this vulnerability can be a real issue.

How big is the problem?

A report from the Office of Road and Rail highlighted the full extent of the problem with the rail networks in September 2018, revealing that the performance of trains has plummeted to a new 12-year low.

The Beast from the East, as the snow storms of early-2018 were nicknamed, proved to be especially troublesome with blanket closures in some areas. The lack of ability of the trains to cope with the cold weather, leaving some passengers isolated was criticised heavily by the head of Transport Focus, Anthony Smith, who described the widespread cancellations as “worrying”.

Other sources suggested that the situation is unchanged, with networks across the country unprepared to cope with the onslaught of cold weather predicted for this winter.

What can be done to help?

Those responsible for running the train services make an effort to minimise the problems that bad weather causes but there’s only really a very limited amount of preventative work that can be done.

Experts monitor the weather forecasts closely to try and predict when a problem could arise, and vulnerable parts of the track are inspected regularly. Trees and bushes that overhang the track are kept trimmed to prevent vegetation from drifting onto the rails.

When it’s snowy and icy, extra measures are necessary. This might involve running empty trains throughout the night to keep tracks clear. Thermal equipment can be used to de-ice areas while points can be insulated to try to prevent them from freezing up.

Despite all these measures, it’s not uncommon for trains to still be unable to run in bad weather, at least temporarily. If you’re relying on this type of transport to get around, it might be advisable to have back-up plans for the season ahead.

Choose an alternative

If you plan on visiting family and friends, having alternative travel plans is a good idea given the uncertainty around rail travel. With strikes planned, maintenance and a general sub-par performance even in prime conditions, there seems no question that the networks won’t be able to cope with Arctic temperatures and challenging weather.

With coaches, there isn’t the same dependency on complex wires or electrical systems, which makes them less volatile in icy conditions. Even in the worst conditions, it’s much easier for coaches to keep running as the majority of main roads are cleared of snow and ice. If you haven’t checked out the availability and prices of coach travel, now might be the ideal time to do so before the worst of the winter weather sets in.