IT can only take seconds for disasters to strike, but their effect on railway infrastructure and operations can often linger for weeks, months or even years. From minor mishaps right through to major calamities, railways have always been at risk of “the big one” striking. As the threat of climate change increases, it also brings with it the potential for bigger and more frequent natural disasters.

But far from resigning to a belief that disasters are inevitable, railways across the world are researching new and innovative ways to learn from past experiences and prevent and mitigate future events.

The collapse of a new tunnel at Rastatt in August 2017 and subsequent closure of the Karlsruhe - Basle line caused huge disruption to freight traffic on the Rhine - Alpine corridor.

On August 12 2017, the collapse of a new tunnel bore underneath the Rhine Valley line near Rastatt, Germany, caused the track above to subside, bringing operations on the main line between Germany and Switzerland to a jarring halt.

Sensors installed in the ground detected the movement and set the surrounding signals to danger, but while any immediate disaster was avoided, the effects of closing such an important freight link had a ripple effect for weeks.

The line forms an integral section of the Rail Freight Corridor (RFC) Rhine-Alpine, which runs from the North Sea ports of Rotterdam, Zeebrugge, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Vlissingen to industrial centres in Northern Italy and the port of Genoa in Italy. The corridor is the most heavily industrialised north-south route in central Europe, connecting The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

A study carried out by Hanseatic Transport Consultancy (HTC) on behalf of the European Rail Freight Association (Erfa), Network of European Railways (NEE), and the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport (UIRR) calculated that total losses stemming directly from the incident reached €2.048bn.

The figure included losses of €969m for rail-based logistics companies, including rail freight and combined transport operators; €771m in losses for manufacturing industries; and €308m in losses suffered by related entities such as infrastructure managers (IMs) and terminal operators.

The line eventually reopened on October 2 2017, but as operations along the route began to resume, the long process of learning from the incident and preventing an event of a similar magnitude began.

The initial response from German infrastructure manager DB Network was “comprehensive,” says Mr Oliver Sellnick, DB Network European Corridor management vice-president. This included organising daily phone conferences with train operators, identifying capacity on alternative routes, providing diesel locomotives for unelectrified lines and not charging for the longer routes taken by the operators, as well as developing an ad hoc cooperation with traffic management centres in other countries, particularly those of Swiss Federal Railways (SBB).

However, the scale of the incident necessitated an international response, something that hadn’t been explicitly prepared for in the past.

“We had identified rerouting capacity on our other lines about at the level of what we lost on the closed line,” Sellnick says. “However the capacity could only be used partly, and the reason was that no-one was prepared for that. You might have a different language you have to talk but you don’t have the resources comprising local drivers speaking French, for example. The production system of our customers is not flexible enough to use other networks so the challenge for us is to basically prepare disruption management for the future in a way that everyone is better prepared. That means infrastructure managers and our customers, the railway undertakings.”

Following the disruption, DB Network, SBB Infrastructure and RFC Rhine-Alpine launched a series of workshops to develop a blueprint covering the future response to similar incidents and identify options for strengthening the existing disaster management process. This resulted in the drafting of new processes for disruptions lasting longer than three days that might require extensive rerouting of international trains.

The resulting Handbook for International Contingency Management (ICM) was discussed and refined with industry stakeholders, including the Platform of Rail Infrastructure Managers in Europe (Prime) and Railway Undertaking Dialogue members, as well as during meetings with IMs and the RFCs.

The final version of the ICM Handbook was accepted by the Rail Net Europe (RNE) general assembly in May 2018 and by Prime in June 2018, and was confirmed and supported by the transport ministries of RFC Rhine-Alpine and RFC North Sea-Mediterranean in a special event at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig in May 2018.

“We said we needed a better and quicker international coordination in case of these very big disruptions, especially with a focus on rerouting,” says Ms Christiane Warnecke, RFC Rhine-Alpine managing director. “We now have a process with the heads of incident management of all infrastructure managers impacted by the disruption, to quickly agree on international rerouting possibilities for freight trains and to identify the capacity that can be offered on these deviation routes during the time of disruption.”

As well as putting together the handbook, RFC Rhine-Alpine also developed predefined rerouting scenarios for corridor routes where deviations are known to be difficult and capacity is scarce. The idea is to allow train operators and IMs to prepare for deviations and to establish diversions more quickly than in the past.

“The rerouting scenarios are available on our website, everyone can have a look at them, and the railway undertakings can use them to prepare themselves, to see how they could organise traffic and operations via lines they usually don’t use,” Warnecke says.

However, the rerouting scenarios and the new coordination processes at the IMs are only part of the story of an improved international contingency management. Locomotive and driver availability are especially important for a smooth transition from normal operation to emergency protocols, as are infrastructure conditions and the regulatory framework and requirements related to cross-border operation. These factors would all still pose problems in the event of an international disruption.

As well as developing the ICM Handbook and rerouting options, the review of the Rastatt incident has also resulted in an initiative by the European Commission to improve interoperability and opened a debate about small targeted infrastructure investments to improve diversion operation.

On RFC Rhine-Alpine, discussions are still ongoing between train operators and IMs to get a joint understanding on rerouting options and on how to be better prepared in the event of disruption. Operators in Europe are also developing an ICM Handbook with agreements regarding coordination and cooperation between themselves in case of international disruptions.


On the other side of the world, the lessons learned during the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake have also begun to influence New Zealand’s emergency legislation and government policy.

At two minutes past midnight on November 14 2016, the country was woken by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake centred near Waiau in the north of the South Island. The quake ruptured a near-200km long swathe of the landscape, shifting parts of the South Island 5m closer to the North Island as at least 12 separate faults were triggered and “unzipped” during the two minutes of shaking.

The 2016 Kaikoura earthquake caused extensive damage to the Picton - Christchurch line.

While authorities immediately knew the damage was significant, the full scale of the impact was not known until the next morning when it was found that entire cliff faces had come down across State Highway 1 and the single-track 1067mm-gauge main trunk line along the Kaikoura coastline between Christchurch and the train ferry terminal in Picton.

The task of assessing the damage and setting a course to repair the line began almost immediately, says Mr Walter Rushbrook, KiwiRail’s rebuild project director.

The earthquake triggered more than 100 landslides, which severed the line north and south of Kaikoura and either buried the track or pushed it into the sea. Around 60 bridges were damaged and repairs needed at more than 750 locations.

“Our engineering teams were onto it real fast and because we had just gone through the Christchurch earthquakes relatively recently, there was some good systems that we were able to drag across,” Rushbrook says.

“We quickly created a reconnaissance app just so we could get a good first pass of the state of the damage. We had an iPad and really easy damage ratings, so when damage reports were downloaded, either in real time or at the end of the day if they were out of reception, day-by-day we could get a sense of where the damage was concentrated and the scale of it.

“We’ve been using apps for a while but we quickly wrote an app for this particular disaster. The apps we had been using hadn’t been designed for that hard core real-time hoovering up information and background processing of information. So some smart people quickly came up with it and we were literally able to download the information and then convert that into geographic information system (GIS) format.

“We had a colour-code hot spot, like a heat map, where we could show the scale of damage, so each day after inspection more red and orange dots were appearing on our map. In terms of communicating the scale of the issue to management, government and other officials it was really useful to be able to do that and keep it updated.”

A “war room” was quickly set up in Christchurch, the nearest major city to the epicentre of the earthquake. Daily morning briefings were held, coordinating where staff were needed and detailing the dangers and risks of each task in the affected zone. A second conference call in the evening was used to update staff and management on the daily progress, as well as keep crews up to date with any new risks identified during the day.
After gaining an idea of the scale of the project, the focus quickly shifted towards rebuilding the line.

“It became very clear very early that this was going to have to be a joint recovery between KiwiRail and NZ Transport Authority (NZTA), so those conversations started up within hours and days, and then we looked to formalise that quickly as we got a handle of the damage to each other’s assets,” Rushbrook says.

The alliance was led by the two owner-participants, NZTA and KiwiRail, with other members coming in as required. That included Fulton Hogan, Higgins, HEB Construction and Downer - the “top tier” contractors in the country - who were already engaged in a tender process with NZTA for maintenance along the highway.

“We kicked off some discussion there and ended up forming an interim alliance just to get some urgent work underway and then very quickly we moved to a full alliance with the contract in place,” Rushbrook says.

“That was one of the master strokes to getting the recovery works kick started. The biggest job initially was to deal with the landslides, which came down both over the road and the railway. They mobilised some serious resources, construction management and safety systems.”
KiwiRail also looked to tap into the body of knowledge developed following the Christchurch earthquake without going through an extended procurement, and set up a mechanism through which it invited key suppliers and experts to take part in the recovery.

“That way we could cherry-pick the best team and that best team changed during each phase of the earthquake depending on the nature of how we were progressing,” Rushbrook says. “Having some flexibility to adapt quite rapidly to the nature of the recovery as it ramped up or altered through the course of events was really, really effective.”

Concerned about the economic impact of the line closure, as both the road and shipping alternatives were not seen as viable long-term alternatives, the government passed emergency legislation before Christmas 2016 in order to fast track the environmental and consultation processes while still maintaining the integrity of the method.

The new legislation allowed KiwiRail and NZTA to “get in a room and hammer things out” with key stakeholders such as the Department of Conservation, local Maori, councils, heritage groups, and representatives of environmental groups such as the Guardians of Kaikoura.

“It was awesome because as we were developing the designs, rather than us developing stuff and then going away and saying what’s your thoughts on this, we literally had them in the room or had access to them, so they were having input before we even put pencil to page,” Rushbrook says.

“And by the time designs popped out - sometimes hours and days later - they had already had quite a bit of input, and when there was a sign off, and there was a process for that, they were happy with it.

“That was super effective, and we actually asked them, compared with the traditional process and the emergency process, which do you prefer? They just loved the emergency method because of the collaboration and the involvement.”

The combination of the fast-tracked process, ingenuity and ambitious targets allowed KiwiRail to partially reopen the line to freight traffic running at night in September 2017, before fully opening in October 2018, with passenger operations resuming in November 2018. Work to fully restore capacity to pre-earthquake levels is still continuing.


Susceptibility to natural disasters can often lead to a greater focus on preparation and mitigation. Japan, which experiences around 20% of the world’s earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater on the Richter scale, has for years developed technology to protect its high-speed Shinkansen trains.

The system, initially known as the Urgent Earthquake Detection and Alarm System (Uredas), detects the primary wave of an earthquake before the arrival of the more serious secondary wave and issues a prompt warning. If seismometers installed at substations or sectioning posts at approximately 20km intervals along the line detect seismic activity of 40 gals or more, power transmission to the overhead electrification is immediately cut for five minutes, bringing all trains within 40km to an emergency halt.

Measures have also been taken to minimise the damage in the event of a derailment. These include an inverted L-shaped deviation prevention guide developed following a derailment on the Joetsu Shinkansen line between Urasa and Nagaoka during an earthquake in 2004 - the first derailment of a Shinkansen train in passenger service since Japan’s first high-speed line opened in 1964. The guides are fitted to the outside of the bogies and catch the rail if the train derails, preventing excessive lateral movement and reducing the risk of the train overturning.

JR Central’s N700A trains operating on the Tokaido Shinkansen line are also fitted with a seismic brake system, which is able to reduce the stopping distance by around 10% compared with the Series N700. This enables the train to come to a halt from a maximum speed of 285km/h within 3km.

While some forms of disaster, such as earthquakes, cannot be accurately forecast, others can be predicted, observed and prepared for. In July 2018, SBB commissioned Altametris, a drone-operating subsidiary of SNCF Network, to validate new technological methods of detecting, modelling and preventing natural hazards such as landslides.

The test was undertaken on a 500m-high, 900m-long mountainside overlooking the town of Brienz in the Swiss Alps, which moves between 1-10mm a day on average, with regular rock falls. While SBB does not have any infrastructure immediately threatened by the unstable slope, the exceptional rate of movement made it an ideal location to rapidly evaluate and validate the new technology.

In July last year, a team consisting of a senior drone pilot with 15 years’ experience in both military and civil drone operations, and a topographic geometrist specialised in 3D technology who was able to parameterise the LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology and verify the quality of the data in the field, carried out a test using a multi-rotor drone equipped with a VUX-1 UAV Class 1-type LiDAR. The team then built a high-density 3D model with up to nearly 1000 points per square metre resulting in a highly detailed survey of the area, with the 2D model of the slope recorded with sub-centimetre precision.

Altametris says this type of technology will allow infrastructure managers and others responsible for the land surrounding a railway to analyse the slightest movement in order to plan specific corrective actions. Despite the advance in technology, planning and policy, the threat of disasters will remain. However, railways will continue to find new and innovative ways to keep operations running as smoothly as possible.


Learning from Hurricanes

LYING on average about 10m above sea level, New York City is highly susceptible to the dangers of severe weather. Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has learned from past experience to create a system that is more reliable and resilient in the face of disaster.

When Superstorm Sandy approached in October 2012, MTA put into practice techniques learned from Hurricane Irena the year before and the Christmas Day Blizzard of 2010. The authority closed the subway, commuter rail lines, tunnels, and bridges and moved equipment to high ground. New York City Transit (NYCT) also covered station entrances and ventilation grates to minimise flooding, secured level crossings, and used 1200 sheets of plywood and 15,000 sandbags to erect temporary flood barriers throughout the system.

When Superstorm Sandy approached NYC in October 2012, MTA put into practice techniques learned from Hurricane Irena the year before.

The scale of flooding was still considerable, with roughly 227 million litres of water inundating the Hugh L Carey Tunnel, 102 million litres in the Montague Tube and 26 million litres of saltwater filling the 14th Street-Canarsie Subway Tube. However, 80% of subway service was restored within five days, and most commuter rail west of the Hudson was running within a week. The Montague Tube was closed for 14 months as crews replaced corroded equipment, while it took six months to repair the Rockaway line. In that time, MTA engineers installed previously-developed flood protections and created new methods of keeping the water at bay.

The South Ferry 1 Subway Station, which was destroyed by Sandy, was reopened in 2017 with newly-installed surge-proof marine doors. MTA also installed eight 60cm-thick, 8.8m-long, 4.2m-high flood-blocking doors weighing 20 tonnes each at entrances to the Queens Midtown Tunnel and Hugh Carey Tunnel.

NYCT has installed permanent flood prevention devices such as marine doors, flood logs, and flood curtains at 48 subway entrances, while approximately 3500 vulnerable points of water entry into the subway system received either permanent or temporary custom-made protections. The plan includes 24 marine doors, such as those used on submarines, weighing 1.3 tonnes each; 2300 waterproof gates deployed underneath pavement grates for station vents; 1700 portable vent covers; and 68 flexible stairwell covers that can withstand up to 4.2m of flood water.

NYCT also installed sheet pile walls along the tracks of the A Line that extend 9m below ground and 3m above ground to protect from a storm surge.