February 24, 2024

Rail Industry Urged to Prioritize Safety Risks of Space Weather

Solar storms and their impact on space weather could potentially cause train accidents by disrupting rail signaling systems, according to new research. Solar storms can create powerful magnetic disturbances, known as geomagnetically induced currents (GICs), which have the potential to interfere with electricity transmission and distribution grids.

A team led by Ph.D. researcher Cameron Patterson and Professor Jim Wild from Lancaster University recently conducted a study on the flow of GICs in track circuits of AC electrified rail lines. Using two routes, the Preston to Lancaster section of the West Coast Main Line and the Glasgow to Edinburgh line, the team simulated how GICs induced in the rails could lead to malfunctions in rail signaling.

In the UK, there are over 50,000 signaling track circuits, with the signal being controlled by an electrical circuit between the rails. The researchers found that space weather events capable of triggering faults in these track circuits are expected to occur every few decades.

The study revealed that space weather has the ability to change signals, turning a red signal green or a green signal red. This has significant safety implications, as wrong side failures (when a signal goes from red to green) are more hazardous than right side failures (when a signal switches from green to red).

The research showed that wrong side failures could occur at a lower geoelectric field strength than right side failures, meaning that even weaker geomagnetic storms could more easily trigger wrong side failures. It was estimated that wrong side failures could occur every one or two decades due to a geomagnetic storm.

The team also assessed the impact of an extreme space weather event similar to the massive solar eruption in 1859, known as the Carrington Event. They predicted that such an event would cause widespread signaling problems on both lines studied.

Space weather has historically impacted power grids and railway signaling systems. In 1989, a solar storm caused power outages in Quebec, Canada, affecting millions of people. Similarly, in 2003, a power outage in the Swedish city of Malmo was attributed to space weather. In fact, there are examples dating back to the nineteenth century of space weather disrupting telegraph lines and railway signaling systems.

The researchers emphasized the need to take space weather seriously as a natural hazard that can have significant safety implications. They suggested that the rail industry should consider the risks posed by space weather and explore ways to mitigate them. Other industries, such as aviation, electricity generation and transmission, and the space sector, have already started considering the risks and implementing measures to address them.

As our understanding of space weather improves, it may be possible to use space weather forecasting to make decisions about limiting rail operations during extreme events, similar to how meteorological forecasts are used currently. The UK Government’s National Risk Register for Civil Emergencies includes severe space weather as a significant risk to the country’s economy and society.

By prioritizing the potential risks of space weather, the rail industry can enhance safety measures and minimize disruptions caused by such events. While severe space weather events may be rare, being prepared and considering their impact is crucial to ensure the safety and efficiency of rail operations.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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