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Hot summer rail chaos costs UK £15m a year - and is only going to get worse

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Commuters stuck at St Pancras railway station after overhead cables were damaged, severely disrupting East Midlands and Thameslink services. Photo: Press Association

Commuters faced continued disruption on Britain’s rail network on Friday morning as it struggled to cope with the extreme heat.

Several rail companies are even advising customers not to travel, with half of Thameslink’s lines out of service on Friday. Thousands of people were left stranded at stations on Thursday on the hottest July day on record.

Such extreme weather and hotter summers are only expected to increase in years to come because of climate change, and research shows it is going to cost the UK economy more and more.

Rail disruption from extreme heat could be four or five times more common by the 2050s, according to a study highlighted in a 2017 report by the government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change.

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Climate change experts have also warned the UK is not prepared for the increase in heatwaves and their impact on everyday life. One Birmingham University study estimates that chaos on the railways from extremely hot summers costs the economy up to £15.5m a year.

That figure is more than five times higher than its estimated cost for the average cool summer at around £3m, which can still cause problems for Britain’s vulnerable rail networks but on a far less significant scale.

The cost could soar to £23m a year by 2080 if Britain fails to curb high emissions, according to the research.

The Birmingham analysis suggested its figures could be an underestimate because much of the disruption is not currently spread evenly across the UK, instead hitting key economic areas like London and other major cities hardest.

It also warned commuters nationwide to not dismiss extreme heatwaves as largely a London and southeast phenomenon, saying “similar although less extreme temperature changes will occur across the rest of the country.”

Friday’s disruption comes as a survey suggests 71% of Britons think climate change should be prime minister Boris Johnson's top long-term priority, putting it above Brexit in importance for the UK.

Heat causes chaos on the railways because it makes many UK rail tracks expand and become deformed in a process known as “buckling,” threatening to derail trains.

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Some tracks show signs of buckling at 20°C and others at temperatures above 25°C. Rail operators slow their trains down or cancel them altogether to reduce the risk of potentially fatal accidents.

The climate change report said Britain will see an average of two days of rail chaos caused by heat every summer by the 2040s, up from around half a day now.

More extreme temperatures also reduce the number of days where track maintenance can be carried out, and increase other problems including sagging overhead power cables.

Sagging cables, which can also cause delays and cancellations, are predicted to be up to seven times more common in the south and east of England.

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