Leaves on the line

Leaves on the line are the rail equivalent of black ice on the roads.

We work hard throughout autumn to minimise delays and get you safely to your destination.

Train travelling on the tracks surrounded by autumn leaves

How leaves affect the railway

There are millions of trees on and next to the railway in Britain and, every autumn, thousands of tonnes of leaves fall onto the tracks. Windy conditions can cause heavy leaf-fall in a short space of time and rain means they are more likely to stick to the rails. When trains pass over leaves, the heat and weight of the trains bake them into a thin, slippery layer on the rail. This is equivalent to black ice on the roads.

Why we sometimes need to slow trains down

Slippery rails make it hard for trains to accelerate and brake effectively. Safety is our priority, so when this happens, drivers have to pull out of stations more slowly and brake much earlier for stations and signals to make sure they stop in time. This can lead to longer journey times and delays. 

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 help us to pin-point where trains are. When we aren’t sure exactly where a train is, the trains behind will be delayed at red signals until the first train’s location is established so our control rooms can be confident there is always a safe distance between trains.

How we reduce delays caused by leaves on the line

Even with the best preparation, leaves fall onto the lines. We work hard throughout the season to minimise delays and get you safely to your destination.

Leaf-busting trains

We have leaf-busting trains, which move around the railway cleaning the top of the rail by spraying it with a high-pressured water jet to blast away leaf mulch.

These trains also apply a gel, containing a mix of sand and steel grains, to help the train wheels run along the tracks as they normally would.

Our routes have numerous leaf-busting teams on-hand 24/7 at key locations across Britain to scrub the top of the rails by hand with a sand-based treatment, so that trains can run safely and reliably on the tracks.

Read more:

Monitoring the weather

Our specialist weather forecasters monitor weather conditions and help us make the best use of our resources. Between October and December we receive forecasts twice a day that include estimates of leaf-fall and highlights locations needing more attention, so that we can target our leaf-busting machines and teams most effectively, and keep the railway running as smoothly and safely as possible.

Autumn timetables

In areas with very heavy leaf-fall some train operators publish special autumn timetables with revised journey timings. These timetables allow extra time for train drivers to drive more cautiously than at other times of the year, so that they can get passengers to where they need to go safely and reliably. 

Managing trees and plants near the railway all year round

Throughout the year we carefully manage the trees and plants that grow next to the railway, so that we can minimise train delays caused by leaf-fall. We manage the lineside environment in a way that allows us to run a safe and reliable service for you and promotes natural biodiversity along the railway.

Check your train is running on time

We can’t change the weather, but it can change your plans. Check your train is running on time by visiting National Rail or your train company’s website.

You may also be interested in