Govia Thameslink Railway’s head of environment explains why rail must adapt to climate change now

2nd December 2022

Jason Brooker, MIEMA, CEnv, head of environment at Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) – the UK’s biggest rail operator – looks at the measures needed to help rail adapt to the immediate impacts of climate change, rather than just futureproofing for tomorrow.

When people talk about climate change, they often talk about the future – how it will impact us in 10, 20, 50 years’ time, or even much further into the future. When it comes to the impact it’s having right now, the focus is on the melting ice caps, or wildfires. But what is often overlooked is the changes impacting our daily lives a little closer to home.

In 2022 alone, the UK has experienced rapidly changing weather conditions. From blistering heat to sudden downpours, which caused flash flooding across the country. And research shows this is only the beginning, and that the UK will see increased instances of heavy rainfall and higher wind speeds, with hotter and drier summers and wetter, but warmer, winters. You can see why adaptation was a key focus of this year’s COP27 conference, especially around agriculture and helping communities adapt.

But it’s not just agriculture impacted - this is having a significant impact on the rail industry. Within public transport, instances of landslips and flooding are significantly increasing year on year, as well as falling trees and flooding affecting all routes. Much of the railway was built 150 years ago, meaning by modern standards engineering isn’t up to scratch. Cuttings were excavated at particularly steep angles, with drainage installed to a standardised design, and did not consider natural catchment or potential rainfall, for example. It doesn’t stop there - climate risks extend to not only rail and road, but also built infrastructure such as leased properties, depots, bus garages and railway stations which face flooding, high winds, and other climatic effects.

I’m by no means saying there doesn’t need to be a focus on mitigation for the future – there absolutely does – however there is also a fundamental need for adaptation to the impacts of climate change now.

As I see it, the barrier to efficient adaptation within the UK rail industry historically has been attributed to short-term contractual funding periods being used to try to solve a long-term problem, compounded by a lack of real understanding within industry.

Climate change resilience has now been identified as a priority rail objective through the introduction of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, and work is already in hand to develop a long-term strategy for rail, which will set out options for climate change resilience based on a portfolio of credible evidence in the form of an overarching Sustainable Rail Strategy (SRS). The SRS covers many areas of sustainable development, but the inclusion of adaptation can serve as a key turning point within industry.

Rail must adapt to climate change now

Developed by Network Rail and the Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT), it has been driven collaboratively across rail and it is this collaboration which has been critical to ensure there is representation across rail operations, infrastructure, and rolling stock.

Across both rail and bus there are some incredibly knowledgeable professionals that I’m incredibly grateful to work alongside, without whom responding to the challenge of climate change adaptation could not progress. Here at GTR, we have developed a climate change strategy that feeds directly into The Go Ahead Group’s Climate Change Strategy. There are several GTR representatives who sit on the Climate Change Task Force, including myself, and we have a collaborative voice around the direction of climate change resilience across both adaptation and mitigation for Group.

The changes I would like to see happen in order to ensure the reliability of public transport that everyone deserves, and future-proof against further climate change, are:

• Long-term planning and delivery – the development of long-term plans which can be delivered across multiple Passenger Service Contracts and Control Periods, with the inclusion of agreed funding mechanisms.

• Funding – planning and the associated funding needs to begin now. Adaptation pathways need to be supported alongside a managed adaptive approach to finance and resource availability needs to be increased across the industry.

• There are challenges and opportunities around complexity of infrastructure ownership, leasing, and general management. Development is needed for site specific climate change adaptation plans for all managed sites, and asset renewal and replacement with like-for-better rather than like-for-like.

Continue and increase collaboration – brining the industry together through a co-operative approach to strategic planning and developing holistically consistent adaptation plans that work together across operators to deliver a shared outcome (this is hopefully what the SRS will deliver). Finally, what can we as individuals do to help? In 2019 transport emitted 122.15 MtCO2e making it the largest emitting sector in the UK of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for over a quarter of total emissions. Rail accounts for only 1% of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, and while this still accounts for a contribution of 1.7 MtCO2e, it is widely viewed as among the most efficient and lowest emitting forms of transport. By each taking ownership of the way we travel, and collectively making a modal shift from road and air to rail has significant potential to help reduce carbon emissions.


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