Professor Robert Duck from the University of Dundee says that numerous sections of railway in Wales, Cumbria, Devon and elsewhere are at risk of being washed away because they skirt so close to the sea. Three lines had to close in 2014 after being damaged by waves, most memorably at Dawlish on the south coast of Devon where the track was left hanging in mid-air.
Trains on some of the vulnerable coastal tracks carry nuclear waste to the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria and from the Wylfa nuclear site in north Wales. They are also vital lifelines for hundreds of communities.
Duck is the author of a new book on UK coastal railways called ‘On the Edge’ to be launched this week. It points out that over 150 kilometres of the operating railway network in Wales are on the coast, along with many other stretches around England and Scotland.
The seawall protecting the railway at Dawlish was destroyed in February 2014 and the line was out of action for two months. “This was a dramatic example of the problems we face as climate change leads to more storms and exacerbates coastal erosion,” says Duck.
“Much of our coast has railway lines at the edge forming the first line of defence from the sea. This leads to spectacular scenery for passengers to enjoy but increasing difficulties for franchise operators and government.”
For railway builders in the mid-nineteenth century the coast was cheaper, flatter and easier than using inland sites, he points out. “We wouldn’t have built these railway lines where they are if we had today’s knowledge.”
One of the most vulnerable lines runs along the Cambrian coast in northwest Wales. Winter storms in January 2014 damaged the track in several places between Machynlleth, Barmouth and Pwllheli, and took five months to repair.
Ballast and earth supporting 200 metres of railway line at Flimby, to the north of Workington in Cumbria, were also washed away by high tides and strong winds in January 2014. It is on the coastal line between Carlisle and Barrow-in-Furness that carries highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power stations to the Sellafield reprocessing plant.
Another line at risk runs close to the north Wales shore from Chester to Holyhead. It connects with Wylfa on Anglesey where there is an ageing nuclear power station, and contested proposals to build a new one.
Duck, a professor of environmental geoscience at Dundee, warns that hard engineering solutions for protecting coastal railways may become too expensive. “The time will come when we have to look at alternatives, building inland diversions and re-opening long-closed lines as a way of ensuring that we do not cut off communities,” he says.
Edinburgh rail consultant, David Spaven, agreed that diversions might work in some places but in others there were major engineering challenges. “It’s ironic that climate change, which should generally mean a bright future for energy-efficient rail transport, also threatens the integrity of coastal routes,” he said.
Network Rail, which is responsible for maintaining the railways, accepted that coastal lines were vulnerable to extreme weather. “That’s why we spend millions each year protecting the railway from nature’s worst attacks,” said a company spokeswoman.
“We’ve published a series of route-based weather resilience and climate change plans which explain our understanding of how weather can affect the railway and the potential impact of changes in our climate. We explain what we’re doing to mitigate the impacts.”