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Why can’t the British rail network cope with the heat?

Drooping electric wires and scorching hot train tracks catching fire... this is not a drill

Written by
Ellie Muir

As the UK experiences its hottest summer on record, its train network is in tatters. Recent footage shows rail workers painting tracks with white paint in an attempt to reflect the heat, while the nationwide rail network and London’s underground services are experiencing major delays as speed restrictions are put in place across the country. 

Spain and Portugal are renowned for their nifty rail lines that can withstand temperatures of more than 40C each summer. So, why can’t the British train network do the same?

Turns out there’s quite a bit of expert scientific engineering behind it. While Britain’s railways are typically designed to work within a range of ‘normal’ temperatures between -10C and 35C, Spain’s network is meant to function normally between 0C and 45C, and this is similar across Europe. As for Saudi Arabia and its extreme desert climate, its trains can cope between 10C and 55C. Meanwhile, Russia’s massive rail network is built to operate from lows of -22C to highs of 45.5C.

So, as the UK reaches highs of 40C this week, the railways just can’t keep up. 

In England, the entire East Coast line between London and Edinburgh is supported by steel wires located at regular intervals across the network. In extreme heat, the wires expand and droop, leading the overhead electric cable to drop dangerously low. The risk is that the wires could get caught on the roof of a train.

During the heatwave, the maximum speed for trains in the UK has been slashed from 125 miles per hour to 90, so as to exert less force on the tracks (which could otherwise catch fire in such high temperatures). This has caused major delays and cancellations across the entire network.

Over the coming days, Network Rail’s extreme weather brigade will be camped out at hotspots monitoring the temperature of the tracks, aiming to fix any major problems as they arise. In the meantime, it’s probably best to avoid travelling by train unless you really have to.

Need to cool off? Here are the 17 best lidos in the UK according to us.

Plus: what will British weather actually be like in 2050? We asked an expert.

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