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Space weather, an emerging risk for rail infrastructure

EU’s Joint Research Center (JRC) has published a report on space weather impact on rail infrastructure. Space Weather and Rail: Findings and Outlook report explores the rail sector’s vulnerability and the potential impacts, in particular through interdependencies with other infrastructures. Awareness among operators and regulators worldwide is currently limited and vulnerabilities across the rail sector need to be identified, authors say.

Space weather caused by solar activity can disrupt and damage critical infrastructures in space and on the ground. Space-weather impacts to the power grid, aviation, communication, and navigation systems have already been documented.

Since society relies increasingly on the services these critical infrastructures provide, awareness of the space weather threat needs to be increased and the associated risks assessed. While most research on impacts of space weather focuses on the power grid, the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), and aviation, railway networks are also a potential area for concern.

Anomalies in signalling systems have been observed during geomagnetic storms, and rail transport depends on power, communications, and progressively on GNSS for timing and positioning.

The report co-authored by the JRC summarises the results of a workshop organised in partnership with the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, the UK Department for Transport and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in September 2015. Representatives from the rail sector, insurance, academia and European and North American government agencies attended.

The participating experts concluded that the vulnerability of the railway sector to space weather varies from country to country due to different system architectures and operational approaches. They recognised that during extreme space-weather situations, multiple infrastructures could be affected at the same time, with potential consequences on rail operations. The experts also concluded that the move towards more automation in future rail traffic management will likely add vulnerabilities to space weather to the rail network due to the increasing use of GNSS. Backup systems to mitigate the risks of GNSS loss are therefore required.

Building resilience to space weather across the rail sector requires the identification of its vulnerabilities and options for mitigating this risk, including the possibility to use 24/7 early warning capacities that are available in Europe and the US, and which are already being used by power grid operators and aviation. To cope with the risks of extreme space weather, the experts recommended multilateral and international collaboration for preparedness.

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