Winter weather can present some real challenges for the railway – here’s how we respond
Snow and ice, in particular, can cause significant issues. So we do everything we can to prevent delays by preparing effectively.
When a train has to slow down as it approaches a station or set of points (which allow trains to change between tracks), this can cause snow to compact on the rails and turn into solid ice. This not only clogs up the points and stops them from working but can also coat the electrified rail, disconnecting trains from the power they need to run.
Ice sheets are at risk of dislodging and damaging passing trains, and the steel rails can even freeze together if they become too cold. When this happens, signals stay red and trains can’t move.
Wind is another problem. If it causes snow drifts deeper than 30cm, or about a foot, trains can’t run safely unless they’re fitted with snow ploughs.
Very cold and wintry conditions can also affect the trains themselves, with ice build-up jamming doors, for example.
How we plan ahead to minimise disruption
- Our winter preparation includes cutting back overhanging trees that could become heavy with snow, and making sure spare parts are readily available for anything on the railway that’s sensitive to snow and ice.
- We develop special winter timetables with train companies, which also run empty trains overnight to help keep the tracks clear of snow.
- Specialist forecasters keep us informed of any severe weather risks, and we run a colour-coded system to alert our controllers to the response they need to take.
- Our cold-weather vehicles and machines are in position at depots across Britain, and we have 10 Snow and Ice Treatment Trains fitted with snow ploughs, hot-air blowers, steam jets, brushes, scrapers and heated de-icer to quickly de-ice tracks.
- Standard passenger trains can also be fitted with snow ploughs that can clear up to eight inches of snow.
- We attach heaters and NASA-grade insulation to points to prevent ice forming, and use a thermal-imaging helicopter to identify points heaters that aren’t working effectively.
- Orange army teams patrol the tracks day and night to clear snow and ice from junctions and tunnels to help keep everything moving.
How we respond to extreme weather
- When conditions are very serious, we might need to introduce temporary speed restrictions for trains and send our teams to monitor any parts of the network at risk.
- We also take preventative measures, such as installing protection from the flood water created by melting snow, or sending out ice patrols to remove ice from overhead lines.
- Sometimes, we have to close a line if there’s been a landslip, or while heavy snow is cleared away.