Leaves on the line cause problems for the railway – here’s how, and what we’re doing to reduce the impact.

Thousands of tonnes of leaves fall onto railway lines every autumn, and we work hard to minimise the disruption they cause for passengers.

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

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.

Not only this – our signalling system uses electric currents in the track to locate trains, but leaves can make this system less accurate by interrupting the connection between the wheel and the track. So, to maintain safety, we need to leave longer gaps between trains, causing delays on the railway.

Year-round preparation

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 – as well as improving safety by helping to prevent trees falling on the line during storms.

How we reduce delays caused by leaves on the line

Even with preparation, every autumn sees leaves falling onto the line. Here’s how we work to minimise the disruption.

  • We have over 50 leaf-busting treatment trains that clean the rails using water jets and then apply a sand-based gel to them to help trains grip the rails.
  • Our track teams work around the clock in autumn using specialist machines to clean the railhead (the top of the rails).
  • During certain months, we receive ‘adhesion forecasts’ from a specialist weather forecaster. This tells us where leaves are most likely to stick to the rails and helps make sure teams are ready to respond quickly.
  • Before the autumn, train drivers receive refresher training using simulators to help them improve the skills they’ll need to deal with slippery rails.
  • Wheel-slip protection on modern trains ‘pulsates’ the brakes to help maintain grip – similar to how anti-lock braking and traction control systems work in cars.
  • Certain trains have equipment that applies ultra-fine dried sand onto the rail in front of the wheels. This improves grip when braking or accelerating.
  • Train companies will alter their autumn timetables to take account of the increase in journey times, which helps passengers to make plans.

Find out more about our seasonal track treatment and weather support vehicles, and watch a video of our leaf-busting train at work