Portions of the rail network in Western Europe could be out of service for months or years after massive flooding that left hundreds dead in parts of western Germany and Belgium. Rail service has been suspended after flooding saw rivers flow 3 meters higher than previous records in some cases and destroyed homes and businesses.
The flooding was caused by a slow, low-pressure weather system that moved into the area from July 15, releasing two months of rain in two days. More than 10 inches of rain fell continuously in some places in the hilly areas of the Ardennes, Eifel and Ruhr area; in many cases this was then funneled down the steep river valleys, unleashing massive destructive power in towns and villages on the way to the water.
In Belgium, most of the railway lines south of Brussels suffered disruptions, many of which in the hilly Ardennes region were badly damaged. The high-speed rail line from Brussels to Cologne in Germany was briefly closed, but as it traverses hills and valleys, it was not seriously damaged. Services restarted this weekend. The older rail lines that run along river valleys, often a few meters above the river, fare much worse. Several roads are so damaged that reconstruction should last until the end of August; less damaged roads reopened on July 19.
Worse situation in Germany
In neighboring Germany, where the scale of destruction and loss of life was greater, some railway lines, again built along river valleys, were completely washed away. In total, the German national railway Deutsche Bahn has reported 600 kilometers (over 370 miles) of track and 80 stations are impassable.
The worst-affected road along the Ahr River valley from Remagen to Ahrbrück saw around 12.5 miles of its 18-mile length destroyed by flood waters, with all seven bridges destroyed where the line crossed from one side of the river to the other. The town of Schuld, which has been seen on television screens around the world, is a few miles upriver from Ahrbrück in the same river valley (the railway line in this area closed in 1973); more than 110 people have been killed by the floods in this region alone. The German government has pledged emergency funding for areas damaged by flooding, but has already said it will likely take years to rebuild the most damaged areas and their road and rail infrastructure.
While the damage to the Ahr Valley has been widely reported, other towns in the wider Eifel region have suffered serious damage, and the rail network and equipment stationed in flood-prone areas are now out of service. use, probably for months. Further north, floodwaters hit towns around Aachen and Cologne, destroying buildings and disrupting some rail lines. Much of the floodwaters ended up in the Rhine; this led to flooding in towns along the river.
In the Ruhr area, the main station in the town of Hagen was flooded and closed, as well as the railway lines through the town, as well as those in the neighboring town of Wuppertal. Flood waters cut off electricity and telecommunications services in many areas. In the city of Bonn, the electronic signaling center controlling the main railway lines along the Rhine Valley could not operate due to flood damage.
Countries neighboring Germany have also experienced flooding, with the southern Netherlands affected by large-scale disruptions to rail and road transport. As the weather system moved, floodwaters hit Switzerland and by this weekend the rain had moved east to Bavaria in Germany and neighboring Czech Republic, the line train between Dresden and Prague having been closed on July 18 when the Elbe burst. . The Elbe Valley was the scene of massive flooding in August 2002 which closed the railway line for three months.
European railway companies facing climate change
The intensity of the floods and the amount of water – with the resulting damage and loss of life – have been called exceptional, with the consensus in Germany that this is due to climate and weather changes. While many large German rivers, such as the Rhine or the Danube, are regularly flooded, this has always happened in the spring, when the snowmelt on the heights swells the rivers. Most of the large cities on these rivers are built either to contain flooding or to manage it, with some neighborhoods regularly flooded. What is so different this time is that the flooding was so rapid and further upstream, where rivers normally no more than small streams in summer turned into raging torrents overnight.
Rail companies across Europe are aware of the danger to their networks caused by climate change over the past two decades, with torrential rains becoming more common, crushing tracks or structures such as bridges. In another recent example. a passenger train in Scotland derailed in August 2020, killing people as heavy rains covered the track in debris after the drainage failed [see “Digest: Glenwood Canyon fire …,” Trains News Wire, Aug. 13, 2020].