In the face of climate change can our engineers keep the trains running on time?

Physicist Michio Kaku once said, “What we usually consider as impossible are simply engineering problems… there’s no law of physics preventing them.” And so it has been with railway and metro bridges that span waterways. The city of Washington, D.C., is bounded on two sides by rivers and an untold number of streams. Every morning the Orange Line, one of six train lines that serve the city, ferries 12,060 commuters — per hour. And this miracle occurs every day in Berlin, Tokyo, London, Amsterdam, Shanghai, and numerous other metropolitan areas. In the United Kingdom alone there are more than 40,000 railway bridges.

Much has been written on how to maintain this infrastructure, particularly in the difficult transition zones where trains leave land to ascend bridges over water. “All railway systems suffer rapid track deterioration at the transition zones requiring high maintenance costs,” said Sakdirat Kaewunruen, Ph.D., Department of Civil Engineering, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. “In the past decades, there have been so many ad hoc solutions provided, but there has been no work on evaluating its life cycle cost and sustainability.”

Each nation has employed its own methodology for maintenance and repairs, but new, daunting challenges created by climate change — extreme heat, extreme cold, and severe flooding — require yet more rigorous solutions.

An unprecedented study titled, “Lifecycle Assessments of Railway Bridge Transitions Exposed to Extreme Events,” published in Frontiers in Built Environment, benchmarks the costs and carbon emissions for the life cycle of eight mitigation measures and reviews these methods for their effectiveness in three types of extreme environmental conditions.

Railway systems are designed for a 50-year lifespan, which is calculated on the integrity of the materials used, and most railways are built along one of two common track systems: rails set on railway ties (U.S.A.) or sleepers (UK), which are then…

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