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Will London’s Tube stations face more floods?

An unpublished London Underground report identified 85 Tube stations as being at ‘high risk’ of flooding

Flash flooding swept parts of London on Sunday afternoon, leading to the closure of many major roads, the abandoning of vehicles and the submerging of several Tube stations. 

The London Fire Brigade took more than 1,000 flooding-related calls and had to rescue people trapped in cars, as well as those with flooded basements and collapsed ceilings, says the BBC. Met Police officers were drafted in to support the firefighters.

Several London Underground stations, including Covent Garden, Edgware Road, Kennington and Stockwell, were forced to close, as well as east London’s Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, which was entirely submerged by rainwater. Videos shared on social media showed what the London Evening Standard described as “torrents of water” gushing into the station, creating “a whirlpool” at the ticket barriers. 

By Monday morning, just one station – Stepney Green in east London – remained closed due to flooding, with other stations closed due to staff shortages. Although the weather was warmer and drier on Monday than Sunday, more torrential rain is expected in the capital during the rest of the week.

But as shocking as yesterday’s London Underground flooding was, the Tube system’s vulnerability to flash flooding should not have come as a surprise to Transport for London. 

Back in 2016, The Independent accessed an unpublished London Underground flood risk report which was funded after Hurricane Sandy submerged parts of the New York metro system in 2012. The report identified 85 Tube stations as being at “high risk” of flooding, including the particularly busy terminals of King’s Cross, London Bridge and Waterloo.

Across the city, Finsbury Park, Notting Hill Gate, Seven Sisters, Colliers Wood, Stockwell and Marble Arch were all in the top ten highest-risk stations.

The report found that both climate change and the “increased laying of asphalt over earth surfaces”, which puts more pressure on sewers, would contribute to increase flooding in London and subsequently the city’s underground system in the future. “London has been fortunate to escape the worst of recent storm events in the UK, but it is only a matter of time before heavy rainfall seriously affects London and the underground network,” it added.

The Guardian, which also obtained a copy of the unpublished report, reported that the London Underground had requested £3m over the next three years “to analyse the riskiest sites in greater detail and to begin to install protective measures”. But the Tube’s head drainage engineer told the paper that the amount would not “scratch the surface” of the problem. Over the past few years, Transport for London, which oversees London Underground’s budget, has seen its funding repeatedly slashed.

In 2019, a report by Caroline Russell, a Green Party representative of the London Assembly, found that flooding had forced the closure of Tube stations for more than 137 hours since 2014. The Climate Change Risks for London report found that, on average, a station closed for more than two hours when shut by flooding and that 41 different stations had reported closures due to floods since 2015.

Fifteen months later, in January 2021, Russell warned London Mayor Sadiq Khan that he needed to accelerate the construction of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS)  or London could face a future of flooded Tube stations. SuDS avoid letting excess rain run off into conventional drains and sewers, which cannot deal with “the extreme weather expected in the coming years”, Russell said.

“The Mayor needs to show leadership and speed up the delivery of new SuDS schemes all over London to stop flooding closing our tube stations, blocking streets and putting the homes and businesses of Londoners at risk,” she added in a statement.

In December last year, the mayor said “London and other urban areas find it harder to attract government funding for surface water flood protection” as the many small schemes needed to manage the problem “rarely meet the funding criteria”.

He said City Hall was working with the Environment Agency and other key stakeholders to manage flood risk and unlock further funding.

Sunday’s flooding came just two weeks after flash flooding hit parts of London, with some neighbourhoods receiving a month’s worth of rain in a single day.

“The pictures of flooded stations and roads show the work that needs to be done to give people – not just in London but around the UK – the protection they need to try and help mitigate such events as and when they arise”, writes Chris Stevenson in The Independent.

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