Arup’s Rail Resiliency Framework helps protect transport infrastructure from global warming

Global warming has had disastrous consequences for the world’s transport infrastructure, hurting trade and quality of life. To help buck this trend, Arup, the global AEC firm, has created a Rail Resilience Frameworkan interdisciplinary program that transit agencies worldwide can employ to insulate rail and road assets from the pernicious effects of climate change.

The Rail Resilience Framework is specifically catered to rail planners, operators, regulators, and owners. It was drawn up together with Resilience Rising, a brain trust that develops multifaceted climate solutions.

Ilana Judah, an associate principal at Arup who is also Americas East Resilience Leader at the firm, shepherded the program together with Vincent Lee, Arup’s Americas East Civil and Water Leader. Other colleagues on the project included TC Chew, Arup’s Global Rail Leader; and Juliet Mian, Arup’s Resilience Leader.

So far, design thinking from Arup’s Rail Resiliency Framework has been implemented on Toronto’s Metrolinx system—this entailed rail electrification solutions, and other green strategies that help optimize and future-proof the Canadian city’s regional transportation network. Arup’s other clients include the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Irish Rail, and California High Speed Rail.

The framework isn’t overly prescriptive. But it draws upon Arup’s lengthy experience working with transit agencies around the world. “It’s just as much about organization science as it is technical and governmental,” Ilana Judah told AN

Arup’s Rail Resiliency Framework
Arup’s Rail Resilience Framework can be downloaded on its website. (Courtesy Arup)

On average, transport disruptions wrought by rising temperatures and sea levels cumulatively cost businesses $300 billion every year, and roughly 27 percent of the world’s rail and road assets are already exposed to a hazard that could be further compromised by climate change if the status quo continues unchecked.

Railroad tracks are made of steel. And when steel overheats (which typically happens at 105 degrees Fahrenheit) it warps, a problem that engineers call getting a “sun kink,” or “buckling.” Since the 1970s, sun kinks have derailed more than 2,100 trains in the U.S.—the equivalent of about 50 derailments every year.

More recently, service was terminated for hours between Edinburgh and London because of the heat. In 2019, monsoons forced 1,000 passengers to vacate a train outside Mumbai. Three years later, in 2022, floods in Australia closed a rail corridor between Sydney and Perth for several months; this caused massive postal delays and raised freight prices by 20 percent.

The path forward according to Arup firm leaders is just as much about technical fixes as well as intelligent policy-driven solutions, and even savvy UX design.

sun kink in rail road track
A sun kink in rail road track. (Jan Tik/Flickr/CC BY-SA 1.0)

Superstorm Sandy, for instance, gave Arup the chance to strut its stuff. In 2012, the tri-state area was decimated by the hurricane’s callous wrath that killed 233. Neighborhoods flooded and a number of the region’s infrastructure was brought to its knees, such as the century-old rail tunnel connecting Newark Penn Station and New York Penn Station.

After Sandy, the New York City subway was in a bad sort of way, to put it lightly. Arup was subsequently brought on by the MTA to conduct a feasibility study and identify water entry points that could compromise the network in future natural disasters.

But what started as a feasibility study became something much larger. “Tunnels, vents, and stairwells are the obvious places where water can enter, but we identified many other unseen and hidden entry points like conduits and fan plants,” Vincent Lee told AN. “We inevitably modeled 9,000 different scenarios and models, which would have been very cumbersome to review in its raw form. So instead of giving the MTA’s operational staff a report, we created a user-friendly dashboard they could use to evaluate flood scenarios.

Engineers at Arup also worked with the MTA and ILC Dover to create Flexgate—a fabric-based gate installed at the top of subway entrances made of NASA-designed synthetic materials that can be deployed quickly and withstand flooding associated with Category 2 hurricanes.

“So much of what we produced for the MTA is bespoke,” Lee offered. “But then again I think much of it is replicable and scalable.”

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