In a recent study, scientists from UCL forecasted yet another extreme winter for the beginning of 2020. Those who had their lives turned upside-down by the infamous Beast from the East in 2018 will be hoping for a milder season. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look that way. It is too early to know for sure what the upcoming months will bring, but if the UCL predictions are anything to go by, we must start preparing.
The forecast summary reads: “We anticipate the North Atlantic Oscillation will be negative and that United Kingdom temperatures will be colder than normal during January-February 2020.” The jet stream that blows in from the west above the Atlantic, bringing frosty weather, is predicted to plunge the UK into an average temperature of 3.9°C over January and February. This is 0.5°C below the average winter temperature in the UK between 1981 and 2010.
Our climate is becoming more extreme and unpredictable. To avoid any inconvenience to travellers, local authorities and the rail sector have a duty to British citizens to keep things running smoothly. Let’s take a look at how the rail industry has improved in light of the Beast from the East, and how we can best prepare for another extreme winter.
The Beast from the East: lessons learnt
High pressure over Scandinavia often results in a polar continental air mass hitting the UK. This is what happened in 2018, causing train systems to be stretched to maximum capacity and face unprecedented challenges. Despite the measures put in place, Britain was not prepared for such extreme circumstances. Most forms of transport were ill-advised due to the weather conditions and, according to Transport for London, one in five regular commuters forwent their commute altogether in England’s capital.
Despite the efforts of the rail sector, the extreme winter created difficulties for the general public all over the country. Local authorities and train companies did what they could during the cold winter and extra help was brought in. Although the reaction was fast and as efficient as possible, people across the country agreed that more could have been done to prepare if we had better anticipated the weather conditions. Luckily, we now have the power of hindsight, and can prepare for the upcoming months..
Winter 2019/20: a nation prepares
Train systems are particularly challenged by turbulent weather conditions. One reason why extreme weather can be detrimental to train travel is that in cold weather or winter periods, direct current line inductors can be exposed to moisture from snow and ice. This leads to many electrical flashover faults. Overheating and short circuiting due to excessive moisture can also cause severe damage to coils. In extreme cases this causes the aluminium conductor to melt and erode away, leaving a gap. Once damaged, the current flow through the conductor is forced to bottleneck through the now smaller cross-sectional area of the conductor. This results in higher resistivity and an increase in temperature.
One solution to this problem was developed by electric motor repair company, Houghton International. Using pioneering technology, they designed HiTIG, a technical welding solution for the repair of high current aluminium windings. HiTIG restores functionality to an otherwise unserviceable unit. Using a standard high-quality tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding procedure, they can create a filler weld. This weld utilises an inert gas with a tungsten tip to create a repaired portion.
This process allows the solution to be delivered repeatedly, and to a consistent standard. Commenting on the innovation, Hodi Mirafsari, Engineering Director at Houghton International said:
“Having worked in the rail sector for over 15 years, Houghton International understands the requirements of the sector and the needs of our customers. HiTIG is the perfect example of Houghton International working collaboratively with customers to solve complex engineering problems and extend the life of electro mechanical assets across their vehicles.”
Another issue is that of signalling. Heavy snow can disrupt the signalling process by getting into the switch rails and stopping the points from operating. The best solution to this issue is point heater systems (powered by either gas or electricity). Although these heaters have proved effective over recent years, they have not been utilised everywhere due to their cost.
Even after the heavy snow of the winter has subsided, flooding can cause huge problems to rail systems. When flooded, the track circuits which detect trains will not work properly and signals can’t be sent. Of course, train systems can’t continue running when the signalling is faulty, so even slight flooding can grind entire areas to a halt.
Thanks to technological advancements like the previously mentioned one from Houghton International, that constantly under development, we will see a transformation in our transport sector. Due to climate change, extreme weather conditions are only going to become more common in the UK. Preparation and adaptation are key when it comes to navigating cold winters. Hopefully we will be ahead of the game this year and be ready for anything that the cold weather might throws at us.