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  • Leaves

    Fallen leaves stick to damp rails and passing trains compress them into a slippery layer that reduces grip

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    Video: why leaves cause problems for the railway and what we're doing to prevent it

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

    Compressed by passing trains, the leaves create a thin, Teflon-like layer on the rails, so train drivers have to brake earlier when approaching stations and signals to avoid overshooting and accelerate more gently to avoid wheel spin.

    Leaf mulch can also insulate trains from the rails with the result that our signalling system, which uses electric currents in the track to locate trains, becomes less accurate. To maintain safety, longer gaps must be left between trains, leading to delays.

    How we're reducing delays caused by leaves

    • We have a fleet of rail-head treatment trains which clean the rails using water jets and then apply a sand-based gel to help trains gain traction.
    • Each autumn, track teams work around the clock at key locations using descaling machines to clean the railhead. On particularly contaminated rails we use a citrus-based cleaner to loosen leaf mulch.
    • Between 1 October and 13 December, we receive "adhesion forecasts" twice a day from specialist weather forecaster MeteoGroup. These highlight locations that will require action, allowing us to deploy our resources more effectively.
    • Modern trains have wheel slip protection which pulsates the brakes to help maintain traction in a similar way to anti-lock braking and traction control systems in cars.
    • Trains have equipment which applies ultra-fine dried sand ahead of the train’s wheels to improve traction when braking or accelerating.
    • We are continually working with specialists, Universities and other railway administrations around the world to develop new methods to prevent and treat low adhesion.
    • Drivers are trained using simulators before the autumn season to improve their skills at dealing with slippery rails.
    • We have a long-term plan to remove plants that are likely to lead to low adhesion. When we replace vegetation, we use species which are less likely to shed leaves on to the tracks. For more information see how we manage vegetation.
    • Some train companies alter their timetables to take account of the increase in journey times caused by the reduction in adhesion each autumn.
  • Live travel updates

    Enter your journey details for the latest information about your train:

  • Our performance

    Around 60% of passenger delays are attributed to us. As well as infrastructure faults, this includes delays caused by vandalism, cable theft, weather, trespass etc which account for approximately 20% of the total.

    Every four weeks we publish passenger train performance figures:

  • About delays

    Cartoon of train pulling into a station The common causes of delays - and what we're doing to reduce their frequency and impact: How we keep you updated when there's a delay: