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Working with nature: Managing trackside vegetation

12 February 2016

Many of the enquiries we receive are about one aspect of running Britain’s rail network in particular: vegetation management. In this feature, we take a look at how we balance the careful relationship between nature, the views of communities, and our commitment to keeping the railway safe and reliable.


How we manage trees, bushes and wildlife trackside is an issue close to people’s hearts, especially for our lineside neighbours – anyone who lives next to the railway.

Sometimes perceived as simply ‘cutting back trees,’ vegetation management requires detailed assessment, public consultation and a lot of thought into the best way of cultivating a respectful balance between Britain’s lineside biodiversity and ensuring a safe, efficient railway.

Our vegetation management teams across Britain clear trees and foliage to keep the railways safe for passengers and our trackside workers, and to help train services continue to run reliably in all weathers.

Recent winter storms have highlighted the importance of keeping the railway clear of vegetation, with trees that are very tall or in bad condition posing a real risk in high winds, potentially falling and blocking the track or damaging overhead lines, and to enable examinations of earthworks and structures. Any repairs could lead to delays and have knock-on effects on the network. Trees and branches could also potentially collide with trains, and so pose a safety risk for passengers.

Vegetation management is a long-term strategy that also saves on costs. Reacting to damage caused by trees falling on the line, and the resulting delays, costs far more than the investment required for planned work.


Vegetation: Quick Facts
  • There's 20,000 miles of railway in Britain, and an estimated 2.5 million trees alongside much of it 
  • In 2013-2014 there were 1,800 incidents with trees that disrupted the network

Multiple teams; one aim

Vegetation management is more than just the work of one team – it’s a co-ordinated effort between different professionals within Network Rail’s route teams.

Throughout the year, our maintenance teams trim back any plants that are starting to encroach on the railway, and which haven’t yet been cleared as part of our vegetation programmes. This is a temporary measure before our specialist vegetation teams can begin their work.

Project teams will also clear vegetation to make space for new infrastructure, or so that they can carry out work safely.


Above: Orange Army teams work to clear vegetation during a line possession

Before the work starts

Our vegetation programme is carefully planned before work begins on site, sometimes years in advance.

We use our specially developed Geo-RINM viewer – which we’ve developed using data from across Network Rail, and which shows an aerial view of our land, with depth and surface details – to initially scope out the area. This can indicate areas that need attention before we carry out risk assessments of the railway and the existing vegetation on site.

Planning applications are required if the works are in a Conservation Area, and we work closely with local authority tree officers to make sure the correct procedures are followed for any works needed to trees that are subject to tree preservation orders or within a Conservation Area.

Environmental law

Ecological surveys help us to identify any habitats and evidence of legally protected species, so we can identify steps to avoid or minimise the impact of the work on any protected species that may be present.

The ecology reports highlight key indications and evidence of certain species, such as badger setts or potential bat roosts, which all staff on site will be made aware of as part of Works Delivery environmental process.

To advise staff on the ground of minimising and avoiding impacts on protected species, we have controls in place and hold ‘toolbox talks’ with the team working on site, when appropriate.

We take every precaution to make sure that nothing is missed on site, by following a carefully structured process, so we can be absolutely certain that we will avoid and/or minimise harm to our protected species and wildlife habitats.

On top of carrying out ecology surveys ourselves, we provide training for on-site staff to educate them on identifying any ecological features that may be present, as well as going out on site with them to give practical guidance. This is very important as, for example, badgers are able to dig a sett overnight, so the staff on site will need to recognise a sett as they are at the fore-front of the works, and the sett could have been dug after an ecological survey had been completed.

If the on-site staff are unsure or suspect they have identified presence of legally protected species, they are able to contact an ecologist or environmental specialist at any time, through our email hotline, who will have the relevant experience and knowledge to advise them on their concerns.

Samuel Jones, qualified ecologist for Network Rail’s London North Western (LNW) route, which follows the route of the West Coast Main Line

Working with local communities and our neighbours

We’re very aware of the impact removing trees and vegetation can have on local communities who may have become accustomed to lines of trees or hedges near their homes or workplaces.

We work very closely with local authorities, and ensure we hear the voice and views of residents near the site.

For those with vegetation work taking place near them, we take care to be clear about what they should expect and how it will affect them.

At least 10 days before we start any planned vegetation work nearby, we send letters to all the households alongside the railway line, telling them about what we’ll be doing. We may also invite residents to a drop-in session to meet with the project team and arborists.

At a recent public vegetation meeting on the LNW route, for example:

  • Local residents were able to address any concerns or questions about the work to the specific team that will be carrying it out.
  • There were aerial survey maps on show, taken from the Geo-RINM viewer, so residents could pinpoint exactly where their house is alongside the railway line and build a very precise picture of what the work will mean for them.
  • Residents could view footage of the section of the line where the work’s taking place, filmed from a train driver’s cab. Showing the line through the eyes of a train driver is one way we can help people to understand how our vegetation works are critical for operating a safe and reliable railway, offering an insight into why clearing the vegetation is a priority in that area.

Once all concerns have been addressed, and all stakeholders consulted, we can get to work.

St Albans clearance

Above: Vegetation clearance next to overhead power lines in St Albans

What we do

We clear all vegetation within six metres of the track – according to the site’s requirements and the type of infrastructure – along with trees beyond this that could strike the line or electrical equipment should they fall.

Greater clearance is required where trains run at higher speeds, in cuttings or embankments or where there is overhead line equipment.

Where an embankment slopes upwards from the railway, we may remove trees further back, as any that are higher up might angle towards the track and so also pose a problem. We also clear all woody vegetation for some examinations or repairs of embankments and cutting slopes.

To reduce the problems associated with leaf fall on the railway, any tree species that shed leaves in the colder months – such as ash and sycamore – are removed.

Low-lying shrubbery past the six-metre point could also need cutting back, so that our teams can work safely without trip hazards, and ivy or other plants cleared from structures or access points. Weeds and ground cover are kept to a minimum.

It’s important to clear foliage next to the railway to leave space for our trackside workers to move into safely when a train comes past.

Stumps are treated with herbicide to prevent disease setting in, as well as reducing the regrowth of tall, potentially hazardous vegetation, which also allows surrounding ground flora (grasses and flowers) and scrub (such as brambles) to grow, so that habitat is not removed, but changed.

Whenever possible, vegetation clearance is carried out while trains continue to run, but cutting back trees that are already very close to overhead lines is a dangerous task that means the railway line has to be closed while we carry out the work.

Arborist Steve Lowe, who works on the vegetation clearance team for the northern section of Network Rail’s LNW route, from Stafford to the route border with Scotland, explains how the route has been working in partnership with regional electricity companies to tackle the problem of vegetation between our overhead lines and their high-voltage systems, which are also alongside the track in some areas.

We’ve been able to get possessions of the track at the same time as isolations on their overhead line equipment and a shut down of electricity. The work we’ve done during these possessions has cleared trees that either one side or the other hasn’t been able to fully fell on previous occasions. 

Working together has meant that we’ve been able to remove those problem trees, making it safer not just for the railway, but for the electricity users in that area as well.

Steve Lowe

Not all the trees that are potentially hazardous to the railway are on our land, so we have to work closely with our lineside neighbours to make sure that trees next to the railway aren’t a danger, whether they’re on our land or not. If we need to prune third-party trees that overhang fences or boundaries, we’ll always seek permission first if we need access.

When the job’s finished

To leave the area tidy once we’ve finished, we’ll either take the logs and branches away from the site or chip smaller branches to spread them evenly as chippings.

On sites where there is enough room and it is safe to do so, some of these smaller branches may be left in a small pile as habitat for wildlife such as hedgehogs.

Often teams will carry out additional improvements, clearing away litter and mending fences.

Green-fingered future

The work to keep Britain’s tracks safe and clear of vegetation is never finished. This is only a simple summary of what’s involved; for different projects there are different scopes, and a host of factors that have an impact.

What’s consistent is the expertise and consideration with which we approach each task. We believe that safety is the most important thing – but we also work hard to sensitively manage the concerns of all our neighbours.

If you have any questions about how we manage vegetation along the railway, you can call our 24-hour helpline on 03457 114141.