Network Rail’s ‘leaf-busting’ trains have started blasting leaves off the line to help keep passengers moving across the North West route 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.

Network Rail, Merseyrail, Northern and TransPennine Express have invested £540,000 on additional leaf-busting kit to keep passengers and goods moving safely and reliably this autumn.

An extra 43 track gel applicators, which spray a special sand-like gel onto the rails to provide extra grip for wheels of trains, have been added across Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. There are now 174 in place  – 25% more than last year.

Phil James, regional director for Network Rail’s North West route, said: “Leaves on the line are a big problem for the railway and this autumn we’re committed to improving the performance and reliability of the railway across the North West. As part of the Great North Rail Project, we have invested £540,000 on 43 extra track adhesion machines which will support our fleet of leaf-busting trains so we can keep passenger and freight services on the move.”

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.

To help battle leaves on the line, many trains across the north west have special devices which spray sand onto the tracks ahead of the wheels. Northern’s brand new trains also have a system which detects and reduces wheel-slips.

The rail industry has also worked together to improve the monitoring and reporting of rail conditions and organised a programme of leaf-clearing sessions in areas where leaf fall is particularly heavy. Train drivers have received new training to adapt the way they drive in challenging weather.

Network Rail’s existing fleet of eight specialist ‘leaf-busting’ trains will still be in use across the North West to wash leaf debris off the lines, using high pressure water jets. The trains also spray rails with a glue-like coating to help train wheels grip the tracks.

The ‘leaf busting’ trains had a test-run on the network last week. From this morning (1 October), they are now out in full force. The trains will run 24 hours a day until 12 December, across Liverpool, Manchester, Lancashire and Cumbria.

The machines will cover 40,000 more track miles than ever before (140,000 track miles this year vs. 102,000 miles in 2018). This is the equivalent almost six and a half times around the equator.

Chris Jackson, regional director at Northern, said: “Leaves on the line, often used to poke fun at the railway, are no laughing matter. The leaves can cause damage to train wheels (wheel flats) which mean the carriage has to be taken out of service and the wheel repaired before the problem becomes more serious. The rail industry is working together to reduce the impact of leaves on the line and the subsequent impact on customers’ journeys.”

Paul Watson, operations director for TransPennine Express, said: “Leaf fall at this time of the year can cause problems for our trains that travel across the network due to residue created by squashed leaves. This leads to difficult driving conditions, which is like driving on black ice and can affect the way we operate our trains.  To help deal with these conditions our trains spray sand onto the tracks to provide extra grip, while our drivers also adapt the way they drive to ensure customers arrive safely to their destination, even if journeys take slightly longer than usual.”

Zoe Hands, operations director at Merseyrail, said: “Last year, together with Network Rail, we managed to reduce the number of autumn-related delays. Buoyed by that success, we’re hungry for more new and improved ways to tackle leaf-fall and the residue they leave on the railway which causes trains to lose traction and can result in delays. I’m delighted with the continued investment and innovation that keeps our passengers moving with the level of reliability they have come to expect from Merseyrail as the most punctual train operator in the country.”

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