As summer starts to hot up with high temperatures forecast this week, Network Rail’s Western route has been busy making sure that the hot weather doesn’t cause frustrations for passengers and that any potential disruption to journeys is minimised.
Temperatures across the Western route, which runs from Paddington to Penzance and as far north as Worcester, are expected to soar this week, reaching over 30 degrees in London from Tuesday onwards and could be as high as 37 degrees on Thursday, a new July record.
Rails are made from steel, which means that in direct sunlight they can be up to 20 degrees hotter that the air temperature. Steel absorbs heat easily and if there is not enough room for the rails to flex, they could buckle in extreme cases. With air temperatures expected to hit the 30s in some locations this week, teams have been preparing to make sure that trains can be kept running and passengers can complete their journeys safely. In some cases it is necessary to introduce precautionary speed restrictions when the mercury rises, as slower trains exert lower forces on the track, reducing the risk of buckling.
At certain crucial hot spots on the Western route, rails are painted white so that they absorb less heat, which reduces expansion. Rails painted with UV reflecting white paint can be between five and 10 degrees cooler than rails that have not been painted, which helps to prevent a type of signalling problem known as a track circuit failure. Remote monitoring systems across the network lets the track maintenance teams know when the rails might be expanding too much, ensuring that action can be taken to minimise disruption for passengers.
As well as proactively painting the rails white, lineside vegetation and debris is also cleared which reduces the risk of fire. This is especially important when chartered steam trains are running on the Western route, such as Flying Scotsman. Equipment cabinets are also kept cool by painting them white to reflect the heat, preventing lineside fires.
Mike Gallop, interim route managing director for Network Rail’s Western route said: “Keeping passengers safely moving is always our top priority, therefore when the mercury begins to rise, we make sure that we have measures in place to minimise the risk of any weather-related disruption.
“We work with specialist weather forecasters to make sure that we can be fully prepared on the hottest days of the year. We started our preparation work for this summer back in October 2018 having looked at how the railway performed during last year’s heat wave.
“Alongside painting the rails white at known hot spots and making sure that lineside equipment is kept cool, the new overhead wires for electrification on the Western route are also having an impact by making the railway more reliable in hot weather. The new wires do not sag in the heat, which eliminates the need for precautionary speed restrictions. All new electrical equipment is able to perform in a greater range of temperatures, helping to keep people moving safely in the summer heat.
“Our staff are ready to respond as quickly as possible to any problem that may arise to maintain a reliable service for our passengers over the summer.”
It's not just out on the tracks where people have been preparing for high temperatures – train operating companies CrossCountry and GWR are carrying additional water on board their services. Station staff will be able to assist passengers looking to keep hydrated and anyone who wants to top up their water bottles will be able to do so at free to use water fountains at Paddington, Reading and Bristol Temple Meads.