Climate change –
Adapt or pay for the consequences

By Cathal Mangan

Technical Manager, Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail)

The Iarnród Éireann network currently extends to approximately 2,400 km of track, 5,100 bridges, 1,240 level crossings, 147 stations, 4,900 cuttings and embankments, 330 coastal/estuarial defences, 372 platforms and 14 tunnels. The network includes Mainline Intercity, Dublin Suburban and Commuter passenger routes, together with shared freight and freight-only routes. There is a cross-border connection to the railway system in Northern Ireland between Dundalk and Newry to Belfast. Iarnród Éireann also owns and operates Rosslare EuroPort, the second largest port in the State in terms of unitised freight.

One point of overall commonality between the current railway assets that is most vulnerable to water is its agedness. Vast numbers of bridges and earth structures are considerably more than 100 years old. Most of these assets continue to provide good service today, well beyond their anticipated design life but inevitably the rate of required renewal and major refurbishment of these assets will increase so as to address the need for continued reliability and safety. This is further compounded by the more recent manifestations of climate change have which have exacerbated the pressures on the infrastructural asset base.

Indeed, the recent history of Iarnród Éireann is dominated by water related incidents which have had far reaching consequences to the provision of our infrastructure and the operation of rail services on the network. These include:

  • The partial collapse of Malahide Viaduct in 2009 as a result of scouring
  • Two week closure of the DART network at Lansdowne road in 2011 also as a result of scouring, at the Dodder bridge
  • Major siltation events at Rosslare Europort resulting in capital intensive dredging works
  • Flooding at Ballycar near Ennis resulting in lengthy annual line closures
  • Year on year, measurable coastal erosion along the Dublin-Wexford line with significant sea encroachment towards the railway line and estimations of erosion to rail level at some locations within 10-12 years
  • Flood events throughout the network at various locations resulting in thousands of customer delay minutes annually – 30,000 delay minutes to rail services in 2014 alone as a result of adverse weather events

While Iarnród Éireann has well-established operational arrangements for responding to extreme weather events in place, along with service recovery and associated risk management procedures, the need for a medium to longer term outlook is becoming increasingly critical. Specifically, water and climate change adaption plans are required to protect vulnerable assets from coastal erosion and flood events which have the short term problem of adversely impacting our ability to provide rail services to customers, but the medium to longer term problem of the actual on-going provision of the assets themselves. Such is the level of risk associated with climate change and the increased manifestation of adverse weather events that it is currently estimated that areas of the main Dublin-Wexford railway line will be fully breached by coastal erosion within 20 years.

The impact of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and climate change on the running of a safe and efficient railway cannot be underestimated. Ultimately, therefore the challenge to Iarnród Éireann is relatively straightforward – adapt or risk more frequent incidents of operational disruption through degraded asset provision and ultimately the permanent withdrawal of affected assets.

This has led to a multi-faceted response from Iarnród Éireann, albeit one that is still in development and evolving. Central to the response is direct engagement with stakeholders, as importantly, this is identified as not just a problem of the railway company, but a national problem associated with critical infrastructure. Participation in DTTS led Climate Change Adaption Planning working groups as well as the national CFRAMS (Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management) programme are central to the building of effective medium and long-term strategies for the reduction and management of flood and water based infrastructural risk to the railways infrastructure.

The development of specific asset management strategies for the affected and vulnerable asset bases is also key to the effective long term provision of these assets. The application of improved asset management techniques help in identifying at an early stage the key risks or risk areas, facilitates the measurement and prediction of asset deterioration and generally allows more effective planning in terms of infrastructure renewal solutions, including longer term budgetary provision for these works.

Overall, the challenges are significant but not surmountable. The fundamental acknowledgement and recognition of these challenges is the correct starting point in that it provides a baseline from which the specific strategic plans and responses can be brought forward – an acceptance that climate change and its adverse impacts is no longer something that will be realised in the future but something that is impacting now. Ultimately, it is a basic recognition that we need to adapt – or else pay for the consequences.

Biography – Cathal Mangan

Cathal Mangan is a Civil Engineer who has worked in the railway industry for over 15 years. He is currently the Technical Manager within Irish Rail with safety and asset responsibility for all track and structural assets on the rail network, including coastal assets and river defences.