Preparing the railway for winter weather

Preparing the railway for winter weather

Published 12 January 2024 | Average read time
3 min read
Stories Delays explained Our fleet

Did you know snow and ice cause serious delays and cancellations to your journeys? Find out how we keep you and freight moving safely throughout winter.


We don’t usually experience extremely cold weather in Britain. But when we do, it can pose a serious safety threat to the railway and other transport infrastructure like roads.

For example:

  • Ice can coat the electrified third rail and overhead power cables. This can stop trains from drawing the power they need to run and leave them stranded.
  • Snowdrifts form when an excessive amount of snow has fallen. When left unattended on the track, they can cause a train to derail.
  • The thawing effect after heavy snow can lead to rocks and other debris moving down steep banks and landing on the rail heads, again posing a threat to trains.
  • A sharp drop in temperature after rain may cause the water between the ballast – or the stones that support the track – to freeze. When the ice thaws, the track can even move.
  • Snow and ice can build up to block points – the movable sections of track that enable trains to change lines. This can prevent trains from accessing certain routes or platforms, causing delays.

Tackling the problem

We use a specially equipped winter fleet to keep the railway running throughout winter. Snow ploughs, hot air blowers, steam jets, scrapers and anti-freeze all help to clear snow and ice from the tracks.

Meanwhile, our helicopters and drones gather visual and thermal imaging. These help us identify issues before they become a problem.

Thermal image of Tamworth station in the snow. Credit: Network Rail Air Operations team

In Scotland, which can experience particularly heavy snow, we’ve even built several avalanche shelters to protect the most vulnerable stretches of the railway.

We’ve fitted electric heaters and NASA-grade insulation to the points operating equipment. This prevents the build-up of snow and ice in critical locations.

Train companies also run ‘ghost’ trains at night to help keep tracks clear.

And we’re always researching and trialling new technology to keep you and freight moving no matter the weather.

In periods of extreme weather, we sometimes have to impose speed restrictions to keep you and freight safe.

What about the rest of Europe?

Just like in Britain, snow has caused lots of disruption to railways elsewhere in Europe. In fact, they often experience the same problems as we do – and also need to slow trains down to keep people safe.

Because our seasons tend to be mild, it’s not cost-effective or efficient to pre-stress our rails for extreme heat or cold. The same rails that must endure a heatwave in the summer now have to withstand extreme cold in the winter.

Watch our animation to find out more:

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