HomeFeaturesCommentA climate resilience task force set up the right way

A climate resilience task force set up the right way

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After ferocity of the weather in the past week, it is perhaps no surprise that Network Rail has set up a resilience task force.

Many of us were sat trying to do the math: how much of our infrastructure could continue to take the battering it did on Tuesday, 19 July? How does this affect rail being the sustainable transport of the future if the inclement weather it is meant to prevent literally stops it in its tracks?

This is before we plunge into autumn and winter and see what stormy weather it has in store — let’s be honest none of us are looking forward to that if the sudden shattering of temperature records this last week is anything to go by.

And make no mistake, it was a leap: Coningsby provisionally hit 40.3oC on 19 July, shattering the previous record of 38.7°C set in 2019 by 1.5°C. Such a jump is highly unexpected.

The Met Office says this would have been impossible in the UK without human influence on the climate.

Of course, while we considered the effects of scorching weather on infrastructure among the Rail Business Daily team, we were already getting a sense of just how seriously those on the ground were taking it. And now Network Rail has announced a new task force that will be led by independent experts.

An independent appraisal is of course the best way to do it — clear of the preconceptions set by a budget, government guidance or stakeholder meetings.

It will look at four key areas, with each led by an independent expert in their field. Three of these areas will be focused on gathering insights from other countries and making comparisons with international rail networks that are more used to dealing with extreme heat and fluctuations in temperature.

Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, said: “The weather we’ve experienced this week has put a huge amount of pressure on our infrastructure, our staff and our passengers, and with extreme weather events becoming more frequent as our climate continues to change, we’ve got to pull out all the stops to make our railway as resilient as possible.

“That’s why I’ve decided to commission this taskforce, spearheaded by leading global experts, whose considerable experience in their fields both in the UK and across the world will arm us with the guidance we need to make our railway resilient in the face of climate change for generations to come.”

Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps said: “Since I became Transport Secretary, a key priority of mine has been ensuring our infrastructure is resilient enough to deal with extreme weather conditions and this Government has invested billions of pounds to do just that.

“However, the pressure the past week’s heat put on our railway shows, despite this progress, there is still some way to go.

“The taskforce we have announced today, made up of leading experts from around the world, will provide us with the knowledge and experience to bolster our railway and ensure it’s robust enough to last – whatever the weather.”

… and the experts are:

Dame Julia Slingo FRS, former chief scientist at the Met Office and a world-renowned expert in climatology, will examine the likelihood of more frequent extreme hot weather events in the UK and how high-quality, detailed and timely weather forecasting can be maximised by Network Rail to mitigate the impact of heat on its infrastructure. Dame Julia recently led a weather action task force focussed on equipping Network Rail with a better understanding of the risk of rainfall to its infrastructure.

Sir Douglas Oakervee will draw on his 60 years of experience in engineering to investigate options to ensure the railway infrastructure can continue to function safely and reliably during very hot weather. This work will particularly focus on the performance of track and overhead line equipment as they are the two most common causes of delays and disruption in hot weather. Sir Douglas has served as chair of Crossrail and HS2 and is a former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Simon Lane, former Managing Director and CEO of railways in Melbourne and New South Wales respectively, will explore operational standards, policies and practices which could allow services to continue to operate safely and without highly limiting speed restrictions in extreme heat. Mr Lane, who has experience in leadership roles in the UK and Singapore, has particular knowledge from his work in Australia not only of the challenges railways face in very high temperatures but also the challenge of running railways in a climate where there is a wide variation between the highest and coldest temperatures. Mr Lane previously led a review for the government of Victoria following a period of extreme weather in 2009.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent transport watchdog Transport Focus, will examine how Network Rail communicates with passengers in the run-up to and during periods of extreme weather, as well as in its planning for disruptive events. Mr Smith has more than 20 years’ experience leading Transport Focus as it took on representing bus and road users as well as rail passengers. He has contributed to recommendations to the rail industry and the government on how the pandemic affected rail passengers and the Williams-Shapps rail reform white paper amongst other topics.

Accountability

There are of course advantages to independent experts beyond being free of preconceptions or being blinkered by external pressures. We have seen how this pushed accountability during the pandemic onto the authorities in charge. The advice was clear and public, and so would be the decision to stick to or deviate from the advice.

I think I’m not along in being eager to see what this new team advises, and how closely Network Rail adhere to the advice.

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