All washed out

09 February 2016

Throughout January we have seen three significant stretches of the rail network out of action due to weather-related damage over Christmas. The Tyne Valley Line between Carlisle and Newcastle has seen numerous landslips and sinkholes due to the excess of rain, between Carlisle and Glasgow floodwater has critically damaged the piers of the Lamington Viaduct and between Dover and Folkestone high tides and stormy seas have left the railway next to Shakespeare Beach on the brink of being washed away.

As climate change takes hold, we are seeing an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events that cause incidents such as these. Our rail infrastructure is not getting any younger (well over 150 years old in places), and so this raises the question: how do we become more resilient to weather events, and how do we better deal with disruption when it happens? Last year we published our ‘Reacting to extreme weather on the railways’ research report in response to this.

We’re seeing a similar pattern across all three of the current incidents. Alternative arrangements seem to be well-organised by staff on the ground, and informative, reliable information is available for passengers who know where to look. But there is a problem: passengers can still buy a ticket for a train that doesn’t exist. The train companies’ journey planners only show the disruption one week at a time, so if you try to buy a ticket beyond that it will show you options from the full, normal timetable.

Not only that, but passengers also find that they can’t buy cheaper, advance tickets for disrupted services – meaning that they have to pay more for a slower journey. That’s surely not fair.

These are issues we have raised before – notably after the disruption at Dawlish a couple of years ago – so the question is, why are the same issues coming up again and again? Why have we not learned the lessons from previous incidents? How can we fix this for next time?

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