Our work to manage vegetation by the railway helps to keep trains running safely and on time

Managing the trees, shrubs and plants alongside our railway for the safety of passengers and railway workers is essential, and it’s something we plan carefully and with consideration.

We receive many enquiries about our vegetation work and know that the decisions we take are important, especially for anyone who lives, or runs a business, within 500 metres of the railway.

More than 10 million trees growing next to the railway have been catalogued as part of a sophisticated aerial survey covering 20,000 miles of Britain’s track. The database provides engineers with a heat map indicating higher priority “problem trees” or overhanging tree canopies that need attention before they fall onto the railway and cause delays to train journeys. It will revolutionise the way lineside engineers target their work, and save the company time and money.

We understand that undertaking vegetation work can be unsettling for those who live nearby and have grown used to the trees or hedges in the local area.

That’s why our vegetation management process involves a lot of planning and thought. Our approach can be different across each of our 14 routes, as we work to address the unique local geographic and natural considerations, but wherever we are, our focus is the best way of cultivating a respectful balance between Britain’s lineside biodiversity and ensuring a safe, efficient railway.

What is vegetation management?

Vegetation management is a coordinated effort between different professionals within our teams: maintenance teams regularly undertake work on vegetation growing too close to the trains and railway, whereas teams including specialist tree workers will carry out tree management at a larger scale where trees have been identified as posing a safety risk.

Careful planning

Our programme of management is planned well before work begins on site – sometimes years in advance – for the least disruption to people who live near the railway and wildlife.

The sustainable management of our land is important to us and our aims for the management of lineside vegetation is to keep our passengers safe and punctual, protect our neighbours from harm and  promote best possible outcomes for our lineside habitats and their biodiversity.

Varley Review

On 28 November 2018, the DfT published the findings of the Varley Review of our approach to vegetation management in England and Wales.

We welcome this review and the opportunity it gives us to develop an ambitious vision for increasing biodiversity on the railway. We are committed to addressing all of the Review’s recommendations at the same time as delivering a safe and reliable railway that puts passengers first.

In line with the Review’s recommendations, we are developing the standards that will see vegetation on our lineside estate managed as an asset. This will see the business make better use of environmental data to improve net biodiversity on the railway and contribute to the Government’s targets on habitat and woodland creation.

We recognise the importance of the Review’s recommendations around communicating with people who live near the railway, particularly in instances where vegetation management works are taking place. A new suite of communication materials has been developed in partnership with the Tree Council to ensure that our neighbours are better informed about the work taking place near their homes.

Glyphosate herbicides – frequently asked questions

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in certain herbicides. It works by blocking a particular metabolic pathway in plants which then kills the plant. It is not specific to any one type of plant and is known as a ‘total herbicide’.

We understand there is some concern about the use of glyphosate in other countries. The safety of our workforce – as well as passengers and people who live near the railway – is our priority. We only use herbicides which are fully licenced by the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Chemicals Regulation Division (CRD), which is responsible for the regulation of biocides, pesticides and detergents in the UK. We also ensure that all staff and contractors are fully trained to use glyphosate safely.

Over the last 10 years, we have reduced the use of herbicides dramatically by improving our methods and more careful targeting – for example by using weed recognition control systems to reduce the quantities applied. The total weight of all active ingredients of herbicides applied in 2018 was 69% lower than in 2006, while there has also been a 25% reduction in the use of glyphosate specifically since 2008.

We constantly analyse and scrutinise our processes, updating them to reflect the latest scientific developments. We are open to exploring alternatives and continue to carry out research into possible other suitable options, including methods such as hot foam, steam, increased ballast cleaning and even hand pulling.

In the meantime, this product remains our best option in terms of efficacy, safety and cost, and complies with all relevant legislation and safety standards established to ensure it does not harm human health or have unacceptable effects on the environment. We continue to work to ensure our use of herbicides is the minimum necessary to effectively manage our lineside vegetation.

The herbicides we use meet strict safety standards set by the Health and Safety Executive who work to ensure they do not harm human health or have unacceptable effects on the environment. The only herbicides we use are those included in the protocol we have signed with the Environment Agency, Water UK and Natural Resources Wales.

At the moment, the safest and most effective way of keeping the track area clear of weeds is to use glyphosate-based herbicides. As above, we continue to carry out research into possible alternatives and ensure our methods reflect the latest scientific developments.

The targeted use of herbicides, such as glyphosate, is an important part of our overall vegetation management procedures.

Glyphosate is our primary herbicide for preventing weed growth in the ballasted area around the railway track. We use specialist equipment on a train to spray directly down onto the tracks and ballast.

We also specify its targeted use, applied by hand, to treat Japanese knotweed and use it on the stumps of specific trees where we know regrowth would pose a risk to the railway.

In all other situations, the use of herbicides would be specified by a qualified member of staff to make sure the dosage used and the treatment programme is the minimum necessary. The qualifications are issued by BASIS, an independent charitable organisation which sets standards and conducts audits for the pesticide, fertiliser and allied industries.

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