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Frost Heaves and High Speed Rail

Blog and Journal Thoughts and Politics

Frost heaving is a serious problem when developing infrastructure in northern of seasonally cold environments. It typically wreaks havoc on roads and railways, and can disturb foundations of structures as well. Most commonly however it does tend to effect road and rail travel. Frost heaves occur when water under the surface freezes. The water will continue to freeze and expand upwards, towards the colder air.


The above photo taken by HopsonRoad on Wikipedia is a good example of what a typical frost heave looks like. Frost heaving can create pot holes and ridges in roadways which quickly deteriorate an otherwise good roadway surface. In the far north they are almost impossible to avoid, with the frost depth several feet down, engineers would have to ensure there is proper draining along the entire route, by filling several feet thick of crushed stone. That is not always practical. Roads into the northern wilderness are expensive, and usually only built and maintained if there is a profitable reason to do so. This is why you do not see extensive northern infrastructure development in Canada and Russia.

Frost heaves also hamper the North American effort to achieve high speed rail. Many of Canada's and the United States of America's busy lines, occur within frost heave territory. For a train traveling at 200mph, a single rail being lifted a few inches because of a frost heave, may just well be enough to spell disaster. For traditional train travel, frost heaves are often responsible for slowing traffic and forcing trackbed maintenance. They also weaken the ground and may be a precursor to the dreaded washout during spring thaw.

Washouts are by far the most common and most damaging factor in any North American rail infrastructure operation. Being that much of Northern USA and Canada typically receives heavy snowfall during the winter, and spring time usually over saturates the wilderness. I don't really think much of Europe is subjected to washouts like this. This type of event could totally ruin the day for a high speed passenger train.

Are there ways to detect washouts and frost heaves? Sure... You can set up sensor grids for anything. But at what cost, and who is going to foot the bill?

High Speed Rail will likely never happen on a large scale in North America. For one, the continent is too vast, and the cost would be astronomical. Secondly, the long remote stretches of line would make the high speed infrastructure harder to maintain. Sure crews maintain the current mainline. But high speed infrastructure would require more inspections and maintenance. I suppose this also means more jobs which is always good too... But at whose expense? Rail travel as it is today struggles to compete with air travel.

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