Network Rail’s ‘leaf-busting’ trains have started blasting leaves off the line across the West Midlands, Chiltern main line and West Coast main line to help keep passengers moving this autumn.

From today (1 October), the culmination of months of planning by Network Rail and train operators will come to fruition to minimise disruption caused by leaves on the line.

The specialist machines will wash leaf debris off the rails at very high pressure and then spray them with a glue-like coating to help train wheels grip the tracks.

The four ‘leaf-busting' trains will run 24 hours a day until 12 December and in total will treat 121,884 track miles this year – the equivalent of 4.89 times around the equator.

When leaves fall, they stick to damp rails, and passing trains compress them into a smooth, slippery, layer that reduces the trains’ grip, similar to black ice on roads.

To keep passengers safe, train drivers then have to brake earlier when approaching stations and signals to avoid overshooting and accelerate more gently to avoid wheel spin.

Martin Colmey, head of operations delivery for Network Rail’s Central route, said: “Leaves on the line is a big problem for the railway. It disrupts services and inconveniences passengers and every year, Network Rail and train operators work together to battle against the elements to get passengers and freight to their destinations. We are always looking at innovative ways to improve the railway and months of hard work has gone into getting us ready and prepared to deal with autumn 2019.”

Last year Network Rail spent £4.5 million on its Central and West Coast Mainline South routes during our autumn efforts to keep passengers moving.

This year, 118 track gel applicators – 23 more than last year – have been positioned across the rail network. They spray a special sand-like gel onto the rails to help provide extra grip for train wheels.

Planning between Network Rail and train operators began almost a year ago to ensure trains and tracks are kept in the best possible condition for 2019.

In addition to the leaf busting trains, a special seven-week timetable for commuters on the Cross City line through Birmingham is being introduced by West Midlands Railway to help combat delays.

The new timetable will operate on weekdays only from Monday 14 October until Friday 29 November 2019, affecting services from Lichfield, through Birmingham New Street, to Redditch and Bromsgrove.

The timetable is focused on providing a normal level of service for commuters travelling to and from Birmingham city centre, with every train arriving at New Street before 9.30am unaffected. Trains heading out of the city after 4pm will also call at all stops as normal.

Neil Bamford, engineering director at West Midlands Railway and London Northwestern Railway, said: “We are supporting the important work Network Rail is doing to keep the trains moving this autumn by facilitating testing of new technology on our routes. In Birmingham we are also introducing a special timetable on the Cross City line for seven weeks from October 14 to mitigate the impact of leaf fall on this high-frequency route. We urge customers using this route to check their journeys during this period.”

David Heathfield, head of corporate affairs at Chiltern Railways, said: “Chiltern Railways has been working closely with Network Rail to ensure that our trains continue to be punctual through the autumn.  Behind the scenes our team have worked hard to accommodate the treatment trains alongside our passenger services to ensure we run as normal a service as possible. Some of our services will depart stations three minutes earlier and customers are advised to check train times before travelling.”  

Specialist teams will be positioned across the Central and West Coast Mainline South routes to check that our autumn treatment programme is working effectively and provide additional support where necessary.

Pioneering testing to improve the reliability of trains during future autumns will also be taking place on the Cross City line on every Sunday in October.

The line between Barnt Green and Redditch will close on October 6, 13, 20 & 27 so special test trains can trial new ways of braking designed to reduce delays for passengers caused by ‘leaves on the line’.

Passengers affected by the tests can plan their alternative journey by visiting www.nationalrail.co.uk.

For more information on how we deal with leaves on the line visit www.networkrail.co.uk/leaves