- Millions of trees grow along the railway, dropping thousands of tonnes of leaves onto the tracks every autumn
- When trains pass over these leaves, the heat and weight of the trains bake them into a thin, slippery layer on the rail which is the railway’s equivalent of black ice
- Throughout the autumn and winter, our teams will work through the night to clear the tracks and keep them safe for trains
The effects of weather are a challenge for Britain's railway, and weather conditions can severely impact the day-to-day running of train services.
Autumn leaf fall causes operational problems for the signalling system and reduces trains' grip, which can change the ability of a train to start from a station, accelerate and climb hills or stop at stations or signals.
When trains pass over these leaves, the heat and weight of the trains bake them into a thin, slippery layer on the rail which is the railway’s equivalent of black ice. A build-up of leaves on the tracks can also cause delays by forming a barrier between the train wheels and the electrical parts of the track that let signallers know where the trains are.
To keep passengers safe, engineers and contractors maintain, repair and improve rail infrastructure around the clock in all weathers, to make it possible for trains to run. Train drivers also brake earlier when approaching stations and signals, to avoid overshooting their stop and they also accelerate more gently to avoid wheel spin.
To help them tackle the challenges come rain or shine and keep the railway resilient, our seasonal track treatment machines and vehicles are ready and waiting. They will carry and deliver nearly 100,000 litres of water per circuit and water-jet the track with a pressure of 1500mb which is enough to cut through metal.
Some trains will even have equipment that applies ultra-fine dried sand onto the rail in front of the wheels which improves grip when braking or accelerating.
Rob Davis, Delivery Director, Network Rail said: “Even with the best preparation, leaves fall onto the line which can cause the same conditions as black ice on the roads. With millions of trees growing alongside the railway, it’s something the rail industry takes seriously.
“That’s why our ‘leaf-busting’ trains and front-line teams are out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to make sure we can get passengers from A to B safely and reliably.”
Before the autumn, train drivers receive refresher training using simulators to help them improve the skills they’ll need to deal with slippery rails. Autumn Timetables are also introduced which allow for extra journey times and help reduce the impact of leaf fall issues, longer hours of darkness and adverse weather to ensure trains run to time.
Ellie Burrows, Train Services Director, Southeastern said: “Driving conditions can be particularly difficult for our train drivers at this time of year, and just as you wouldn’t accelerate over black ice on the roads, leaves on the line pose the same danger on the railway.
“Safety is always our top priority, so our drivers have to move out of stations more slowly and brake much earlier to make sure they stop in time. This means that, in some areas, we need to put special timetables in place. We can't risk the safety of passengers by driving trains at full speed when conditions are bad.”
Before the leaves even hit the rails, we work all year to minimise the impact. Our ongoing vegetation management programme means fewer leaves fall on the tracks along with improving safety by helping to prevent trees falling on the line during storms.
We also receive ‘adhesion forecasts’ from a specialist weather forecaster which tells us where leaves are most likely to stick to the rails. This helps us to make sure teams are ready to respond quickly.