Keeping trains moving in snow and ice

We work hard to predict and plan for any potential problems caused by snow and ice on the rail network, and have a number of ways to address them quickly

Common issues include:

  • snow being compacted by passing trains into solid ice – particularly in areas where trains move slowly – preventing points working
  • ice coating the electrified rail and stopping power reaching trains
  • rails freezing together, so signals stay red and trains stop
  • heavy snow making branches break off trees, damaging overhead wires and blocking the track
  • wind causing snow drifts of 30cm or more – in this case, trains would need to be fitted with snow ploughs to run safely.

View our film and find out more about how we help prevent train delays caused by snow and ice

Preparation

Typical preparation for winter weather includes making sure the track is clear, with no overhanging snow-covered vegetation, no icicles at tunnel entrances, and spare parts delivered where needed for assets sensitive to snow and ice. Fences on major routes prevent snow blowing onto the tracks.

Our orange army patrol the tracks day and night to clear snow and ice from junctions and tunnels, while a helicopter fitted with thermal imaging identifies points heaters that aren’t working effectively.

Heaters are attached to points to prevent ice forming, and there are protective covers on 4,000 points and 2,500 points motors to keep out snow.

Response

Our weather experts discuss with route teams the actions to take. This might include:

  • introducing temporary speed restrictions,
  • sending staff to monitor the at-risk asset
  • sending patrols to remove ice from overhead lines.
  • line closures in extreme cases – blocked due to a landslip, or while heavy snow is being cleared.

Our approach to weather resilience

two employees walking in snow

Our cold-weather fleet

Our vehicles and machines are ready at depots across the country and can be deployed where needed when ice and snow are forecast.

Visit our in-depth web page about our seasonal track treatment and weather support fleet

  • The first line of defence, before snow reaches 18 inches high, is the miniature snow plough (MSP). This fits to the underside of a locomotive at the front and can be adjusted according to the depth of snow. They are ideal for clearing a route.
  • We also use Independent and Beilhack snow ploughs. The Beilhack is shorter in height than the Independent, giving the driver greater visibility over the plough.
  • Two locomotives must be coupled up to use the Independent plough, due to its size. This is required operationally but also gives flexibility and resilience. Both Beilhack and Independent ploughs are stored at strategic locations and help to clear heavy snow, but aren’t deployed for avalanches, which could contain hidden rocks, ice and debris.
  • In winter our multipurpose vehicles (MPVs) spray the railhead with de-icer in third-rail areas (the south east and in Merseyside). They carry out regular planned circuits to de-ice the track when icy weather is forecast.
  • Our two snow blower trains, based in Scotland, are fitted with propellers that cut through and blow away snow drift. A special hydraulic turntable within the machine makes it possible for the snow blower machine to turn around of its own accord.
  • Snow and ice treatment trains are another great piece of kit. They’re fitted with sleet brushes, third-rail scrapers and heated liquid to help prevent ice adhering to the conductor rail. Coupled with the ability to plough snow up to eight inches in depth working quickly, they are ideal for routes with heavy rail traffic, and we have 10 of them.
  • The winter development train in Scotland comes with a large heater attachment to melt snow from the tracks, along with steam lances to defrost switches and crossings to keep the rail network open so trains can run.

Footprints in snow on railway

This image and central image: © Paul Sheriff