Did you know we have a dedicated fleet for tackling the thousands of tonnes of leaves that fall on the railway each autumn?

We’re busy preparing 61 specialist trains and vehicles to minimise the impact of leaf fall, which kicks off in earnest this week.

Our railhead treatment trains (RHTT) and multi-purpose vehicles (MPV) are getting ready to travel across Britain, keeping the network safe for passengers and freight operators.

Disruption prevention

Leaves on the line – an annual cause of delays for rail passengers – pose problems for the railway. They stick to damp rails and passing trains compress them into a thin, black layer on the rail which – much like black ice on the roads – can affect train braking and acceleration.

This means train drivers must slow down earlier for stations and signals to avoid overshooting them. They must also accelerate more gently to avoid wheel spin. All this can increase journey time and lead to delays for passengers.

Build-up of leaf mulch can also make it harder for our signallers to detect a train’s location, causing delays when subsequent trains are unable to proceed until the train in front moves further up the line.

Andy Thomas, Network Rail’s managing director, strategic operations, said: “Every autumn, 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.”

How we do it

Equipped with a high-pressure pump, our leaf-busting trains clean the railheads by spraying it with a water jet at very high pressure (1500 bar) to blast away leaf mulch, clearing the tracks and helping the signalling system to work correctly. They then apply a layer of adhesion modifier – a mixture of suspension gel, sand and steel or iron shot – to the rail to aid traction and help trains run like they normally would.

Network Rail’s autumn preparation programme includes multiple measures:

  • A total of 61 leaf-busting trains (32 MPVs and 29 RHTTs), which move around the network cleaning the rails and laying adhesion modifier.
  • We have leaf-busting teams available 24/7 at key locations to scrub the top of the rails by hand with a sand-based treatment.
  • Management and replacement of lineside vegetation with species less likely to shed leaves on to the tracks.
  • Between 1 October and 13 December, Network Rail receives adhesion forecasts twice a day from a specialist weather forecaster highlighting locations requiring action. This allows us to plan resources more effectively.
  • As an industry, we work together to run a safe and reliable service. In areas with heavy leaf-fall some train operators publish special autumn timetables with revised journey timings to allow train drivers to drive more cautiously than at other times of year.

Find out more about how Network Rail tackles autumn