How did UK infrastructure cope with record temperatures? – New Civil Engineer

21 Jul, 2022 By Greg Pitcher
Lineside fires, power cuts, buckled road and damaged runway – Britain’s record-breaking heatwave certainly made an impact on infrastructure.
As temperatures were recorded above 40C for the first time in the country’s history, civil engineers were busy responding to a number of emergencies.
This came despite a lengthy build-up to the extreme weather, and a number of mitigations being put in place as the heat steadily rose in the preceding days. From wrapping elements of the Hammersmith Bridge in foil to painting rails white, the industry did its best to prepare for the crisis.
A number of measures were also rolled out on sites across the UK, with workers starting at 5am in some instances to finish before peak temperatures, certain tasks being rescheduled and hydration given high priority.
But how did the UK’s infrastructure stand up to the unprecedented heat?
The sun was able to add substantially to the misery that RMT-led strikes have already heaped on rail commuters this summer.
A number of train routes were disrupted during and after the heatwave, with Network Rail announcing a “do not travel” warning to all customers heading north from London on Tuesday.
The body said services were heavily impacted by the extreme heat on Monday, with buckled rails reported and overhead wire systems failing. Speed restrictions were put in place, journeys were cancelled, routes were subjected to afternoon closures and certain lines closed.
The situation was exacerbated when trains were suspended between London Euston and Milton Keynes due to a lineside fire (pictured above), while a power fault stopped all trains at Birmingham New Street station.
Severe disruption continued on both the East and West Coast Main Lines on Wednesday.
Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines admitted the weather had put “a huge amount of pressure” on infrastructure and swiftly appointed former ICE president Doug Oakervee to undertake an investigation into the resilience of the UK’s railways.
A section of the A14 was closed near Bottisham in Cambridgeshire on Monday night, with reports suggesting heat had caused the surface of the road to buckle. The Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire Road Policing Unit tweeted that the resultant “ramp” was “proving to be hazardous”.
Elsewhere a Lincolnshire Police sergeant posted a photo on social media showing road surface “starting to melt” near Blyton.
Overnight closures were required to carry out repairs between junctions 4 and 5 of the M1; on the A11 near Norwich; and on an approach road to the M2 in Kent.
Emergency works on the A12 near Kelvedon in Essex added  around half an hour to rush-hour journey times.
By and large, however, the road network appeared to deal relatively well with the extreme weather.
A spokesperson for National Highways said: “Our motorways and major A roads are highly resilient to extreme weather and have stood up well in response to the unprecedented and record temperatures.
“We manage approximately 6,900km of roads across England and have responded to a very small number of heat-related incidents on the network, some of which required emergency resurfacing overnight, or where the surface of some of our A-roads has been distorted as a result of concrete expanding beneath the surface. In all cases, we have worked at speed to repair roads to reopen them as quickly and safely as possible.”
Flights were suspended to and from Luton Airport for around an hour on Monday afternoon after damage was noted to the runway.
The airport said essential repairs were required after high surface temperatures “caused a small section to lift”.
Meanwhile some passengers reported long queues and delays at other airports but these have been seen prior to the heatwave as the aviation industry struggles to cope with post-pandemic demand.
That no significant worsening of overall operational conditions took place during the intense weather could in fact be seen as a minor win for the sector.
A number of power cuts were reported, especially across the north of England, as the heat impacted on energy infrastructure this week.
Electricity network provider Northern Powergrid said pole-mounted transformers had overheated and overhead conductors had sagged. The problems were complicated by the impact of the weather on teams working to repair the assets.
Northern Powergrid director of field operations Andy Bilclough said: “We were well prepared for the increased number of power cuts, to work in these challenging conditions and to support our customers in every way that we can.”
Teams would work through the night if required to restore services, he added.
Clearly, however, any length of time without power for fridges and fans would have been incredibly difficult for people over the past few days.
Several water companies issued advice to the public ahead of the latest heatwave.
Southern Water published tips for customers such as urging them to re-use paddling pool water on the garden and take showers rather than baths.
Daily demand often goes up by hundreds of millions of litres during hot weather, said the utility, “putting immense pressure on our supply network”.
Although it is thought the situation could quickly change, there are currently no hosepipe bans in force across the UK, and taps continued to run during the latest crisis.
The National Infrastructure Commission said the heatwave was a graphic reminder of the challenge posed by extreme weather.
Commissioner Jim Hall said: “Though some parts of our infrastructure held up pretty well, there was considerable disruption, particularly to our transport networks.
“There’s certainly no room for complacency given the increased risk we face, not just from excessive heat but also of flooding and drought.
“The government has already accepted our call for clear standards and systematic stress-testing to help our infrastructure resist, absorb and recover from these sorts of shocks: we now need the National Resilience Strategy later this year to set out precisely what those standards should be and how they’ll be implemented, so that future investment in climate resilience can be deployed to maximum effect.”
Hall added that disruption caused this week highlighted the importance of properly managing infrastructure assets to ensure that they can cope with extreme weather.
“One of the Commission’s priorities for the next National Infrastructure Assessment is to examine whether asset management systems are in place to ensure that infrastructure systems continue to perform adequately throughout their life.”
ICE vice-president Anusha Shah said the last few days showed how “vulnerable” infrastructure was to extreme heat.
“We can not continue building new infrastructure to old specifications, nor can we afford not to future-proof existing infrastructure,” she said.
“The good news is that many practical steps we can take have multiple benefits – not only for resilience but for reducing emissions, improving biodiversity and enhancing health and wellbeing,” said Shah, who is also senior director of resilient cities at Arcadis.
“The bad news is that it will take strong political will, new appraisal and operational models, as well as investment in adaptation and low-carbon solutions. Policy makers can’t keep kicking the can down the road when it comes to investing in resilient infrastructure.”
Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief executive Alasdair Reisner said the last 48 hours had shown the “importance” of infrastructure to the UK, and the threats to it from a changing climate.
“It is a stern reminder of the role that we all have to drive carbon out of our industry’s processes, playing our part in delivering net zero,” he added.
“We also recognise the crucial importance of improving the resilience of UK infrastructure to counter a threat that is only likely to increase in the years to come.”
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