How Can Transit & Rail Systems Cope With +1.5ºC?

How Can Transit & Rail Systems Cope With +1.5ºC?

January 15, 2022

The signs of climate change are all around us and getting bigger every year, yet with everything else going on in our lives, we can still let them pass by without much thought. Signs like:

  • The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season being the most active on record.
  • At least 270 people dying in floods in Europe between July 12 and 15, 2021.
  • The small town of Lytton in northwest Canada hitting 121 degrees Fahrenheit in June 2021.
  • Drought in the West leading to wildfires so vast that the smoke reached the East Coast.
  • Cold in North America in February 2021 shifting south to cripple power generation in Texas.
  • Hurricane Ida causing massive flooding retracing some of the same ground that Hurricane Katrina traveled exactly 16 years before.

These are just a few of the examples of how climate change is manifesting real change in our world, but unless you are personally affected, it’s easy for these record-breaking events to become background noise. To realize the full significance of climate change and prepare ourselves for it, we need to stop for a moment, take stock of what’s happening, and then help determine a path forward.

On August 9, 2021 the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a portion of their Sixth Assessment Report, the most comprehensive and conclusive “state of the science” on the climate crisis. The report was authored by more than 200 scientists from over 60 countries and cites more than 14,000 individual studies. It points to a disturbing reality – no matter what we do, climate change is here, it’s getting worse, and we will be living with it for hundreds to thousands of years. Adding urgency, the report shows climate change is happening even faster than scientists previously thought, and the latest projections have the world reaching or exceeding 1.5ºC, a key threshold, within the next decade or two.

Life in this climate changing reality demands a two-pronged approach – our clients in the transit and rail industry will be instrumental to both.

First, to eventually stop global warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced to net-zero, an action dubbed “mitigation.” At this point, avoiding 1.5ºC of warming is all but impossible, but it will take significant cuts to emissions to even avoid 2ºC of warming before 2050 and 3ºC before the end of the century. However, every fraction of a degree we can avoid reduces the magnitude of the disasters we will face. Transit and rail systems with a significant and growing portion powered electrically and their inherent energy efficiency moving people and goods are a necessary element in reducing GHG emissions and mitigating climate change.

Second, to live most effectively in this changing climate, we must adapt. We must become resilient. This includes helping our clients add resilience to the infrastructure and systems we rely on. Basic transportation and mobility are critical to the working of our communities. Never more so than in the aftermath of a disaster. The ability of public transportation to recover and continue post-disaster is essential to recover and rebuild communities by allowing first responders and other front-line workers (and those that support them) to get to their jobs. Ensuring transit and rail systems are resilient is not a luxury, it is critical for our future.

Defining Resilience for Transit & Rail

At a basic level, you can think of resilience as emergency or threat readiness, response, and recovery combined with physical adaptation – be that emergency/threat a natural disaster or a human-made event.

A good definition of resilience is by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: “…the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, respond, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.”

Why Resilience is Important for Transit and Rail

Simply stated, resilience is important because the severity and frequency of extreme weather events and human-made threats such as cyberattacks are increasing. Millions of people, businesses, and organizations, including Gannett Fleming’s clients have been affected. In 2020 alone, extreme weather and climate-related disasters, with losses exceeding $1 billion each, resulted in a cumulative price tag of $100 billion. The figure below shows each of these 22 events and where they occurred in the U.S.

Taken from

Not only the magnitude but the frequency of extreme events has dramatically increased in recent years. Shown in the chart below there were 29 billion-dollar disasters in the decade of the 1980s compared to 22 that occurred in 2020 alone. Likewise, in just the last three years, 50 of these events occurred, nearly equal to the 53 that happened in all the 1990s. This frequency has driven unprecedented increased costs for recovery. Overall, between 1980 and 2020, the U.S. has sustained 285 weather and climate disasters where the damage reached or exceeded $1 billion. The cumulative cost of these events exceeds $1.8 trillion and 14,000 deaths. Included in these estimates are billions of dollars in damage to transit and rail assets.

Taken from

In addition to extreme weather events, long-term, day-to-day climate-change-related impacts are occurring. For example, since 1993, the average global sea level is estimated to have risen 3 to 4 inches. Currently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts Atlantic and Gulf Coast sea levels will rise by a minimum of 7.5 feet by 2100.

Sea level rise is causing dramatic increases in high tide or “sunny-day” flooding. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projections, U.S. coastal communities will experience as many as 270 days of high tide floods a year by 2050. Understandably sea-level rise directly affects transit agencies with assets located at or below sea level, such as underground tunnels and stations. Agencies in the Northeast are experiencing high tide flooding exacerbated by common Nor’easter storms.


Like extreme weather events and climate-related impacts, an acceleration in man-made threats is occurring as well. Transit systems have recently been subject to several significant cyberattacks. Thanks in part to the sudden transformation to remote working because of the pandemic, cybercrime has seen a dramatic rise with estimated global losses at just under a record $1 trillion for 2020. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and computer security company McAfee stated that 2020s losses are almost double the monetary loss from cybercrime in 2018.

Taken from The Hidden Costs of Cybercrime by CSIS and McAfee.

Strategies for Resilience

Transit agencies face varying threats in different regions of the country. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work for our clients’ resiliency programs. For strategies to be effective, solutions must be developed and prioritized according to the risks posed to each agency. To illustrate this point, the examples below show the impacts of a sample of threats and the resilience-based strategies that transit agencies can use to address them.


As evident from these examples, the strategies are multi-disciplinary, involving several parts of our clients’ organizations. Although names of departments and organizational structure will vary between agencies, resilience adoption will typically require the following organizational areas to be engaged:

  1. Policy and Administration, Planning, and Safety.
  2. Asset Management and Capital Programming.
  3. Project Development, Infrastructure Design, and Construction.
  4. Emergency Response and Recovery.
  5. Operations and Maintenance.

How Gannett Fleming Can Help

As a leader in global infrastructure solutions with capabilities in planning, design, technology, resilience, and sustainability, there are several areas where Gannett Fleming can help implement resilience strategies and assist our clients in achieving their goals. As different clients have different needs, it’s essential to understand our clients’ unique situations, their priorities, and how current and future threats affect their systems and customers.

To be effective, resilience strategies must employ an enterprise-wide, multi-disciplinary approach. With our strong expertise in transit and rail systems, as well as comprehensive engineering services, Gannett Fleming can assist our clients from inception to realization of their resilience programs.

  • Transit and Rail – resilience issues often target roads, bridges, and rail first. We have experts on guideway structures, trackwork, traction power, signals, communications, operations simulations, and planning.
  • Security and Safety – planning for the unforeseen requires safety and emergency response planning, procedures, policies, threat, and vulnerability assessments.
  • Management Consulting – part of an overall strategy should include asset management, data governance, management policies and procedures, capital planning, and prioritizing resiliency issues.
  • GeoDecisions (our geospatial technology experts) – creating the digital infrastructure for resilience includes GIS mapping and applications development.
  • Geotechnical & Hydraulics – planning for more severe storm events requires hydrologic and hydraulics studies and mapping.
  • Vertical Transportation (elevator and escalator specialists) – assess vertical circulation vulnerabilities and mitigation strategies.
  • Construction Services – construction engineering, inspection, and management to ensure resilient infrastructure is well built.

Our teams are built to respond to the demands of our clients’ unique situations and goals. Although we will be living with the effects of climate change for years to come, we know we can design and build infrastructure that’s ready for the challenge. At Gannett Fleming, we are proud to partner with our clients to help mitigate climate change and adapt infrastructure to prepare for a better, more resilient future.

For more resilience solutions, visit the Resilience page.

David Burrows

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