- Documents and publications
Impacts of climate change on operation of the US rail network
The rail network in the US is the largest network within any single country at 140,000 miles of Class 1 tracks. The network is predominantly focused on freight traffic with the exception of key passenger corridors along the eastern seaboard and in the upper Midwest. This extensive rail network enhances connectivity, but also raises the question of potential vulnerability to climate changes over the next century. Specifically, projected changes in temperature highlight the vulnerability of tracks to temperature increases and the accompanying issue of track expansion, which, under current operating policies, can lead to train delays, and in the most extreme cases can lead to derailments.
In this study, the issue of potential impacts to the rail network is analyzed in terms of the cost of potential increases in delays that will occur due to responses of train network operators to temperature increases. Impacts analyzed using a range of climate models indicate that the rail network may incur an increase in delay-minute costs over typical historic costs of between $25 and $45 billion cumulatively through 2100 under a low greenhouse gas emissions future, and between $35 and $60 billion under a high emission scenario. However, these costs could be reduced by up to an order of magnitude if current sensor technologies are incorporated into tracks, coupled with refinements to current speed reduction policies that better leverage temperature monitoring capabilities.