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Dealing with the autumn weather

17 October 2013

Britain’s 30,000 hectares of railway land are home to millions of trees, bushes and other plants. A mature tree can have between 10,000 and 50,000 leaves and each autumn thousands of tonnes of leaves fall onto railway lines across the country.


A serious safety issue

Compressed by passing trains, these leaves create a thin, black ‘Teflon’-like layer on the rail which, much like black ice on the roads, can affect train braking and acceleration as a result of reduced friction between train wheels and rails. This means train drivers have to slow down earlier for stations and signals to avoid overshooting them and then move off again more slowly to avoid wheel spin.

Build-up of leaf mulch can also electrically insulate train wheels from the rails, which means our signallers have less accurate information about the location of trains in affected areas. As a result, subsequent trains can’t proceed until the train in front is much further up the line than normal, which can lead to delays.

Leaves on the line is recognised as a serious performance issue for railways across the world.

What are we doing?

We focus our resources to keep the railway safe and running. This includes keeping the area between the track rails completely clear and removing any lineside vegetation on our land that poses a threat to the safe running of the railway or our operations.

  • 55 leaf-busting trains clean the top of the rail by spraying it with a water jet at high pressure to blast away leaf mulch. These trains also lay 'Sandite', a composite material of sand and aluminium, to aid traction
  • More than 80 two-man ‘leaf-busting’ teams are available 24/7 at key locations to scrub the top of the rails by hand with a sand-based treatment
  • We replace lineside vegetation with species less likely to shed leaves
  • Between 1 October and 13 December we receive forecasts twice a day from specialist weather forecaster MeteoGroup which highlight locations requiring action so we can plan effectively
  • Some rail companies change their timings and publish special leaf fall timetables to take account of the additional time journeys can take during difficult autumn conditions in known ‘black spots'

It's no different in Britain

Britain is not alone, with many countries, particularly in northern Europe and North America where railways run through large deciduous forested areas, experiencing regular disruption caused by leaf fall.

The steps taken in other countries are broadly the same as in Britain, being a combination of proactive vegetation management and specialised technology.