Tackling leaves on the line using hygroscopic sand

Tackling leaves on the line using hygroscopic sand

Published 2 November 2023 | Average read time
3 min read
Stories Putting passengers first

Every autumn leaves on the line can pose a serious safety threat to trains. Find out how we’re tackling this issue with an exciting new technology.  

Did you know autumn tends to be the most challenging season for our railway? Thousands of tonnes of leaves fall onto the track and over time create a slippery layer on the rail head.  

Dew, rain and moisture from vegetation and trees can also create slippery rails in autumn. 

Slippery rails make it hard for trains to accelerate and brake effectively – like black ice on the roads. Trains may move more slowly along the slippery track. They brake and accelerate more slowly and for longer to avoid slipping. This can lead to train delays, longer journey times and disruption.   

We use a variety of techniques and equipment to tackle the problem. Watch this video to find out more: 

Traction sand 

One way we tackle leaves on the line is by using a special type of traction sand known as adhesion modifier or sandite. It’s made from antifreeze, sand and steel-shot. 

We put this sand on the rail head to help increase friction and reduce the likelihood of train wheels slipping.  

Hygroscopic sand 

We’ve worked with Arriva Rail London and sand manufacturer BCH Solutions since 2021 to trial the use of another type of sand. Hygroscopic sand is made up of different types materials and may be even more effective at improving rail conditions during autumn.  

Early trials suggest hygroscopic sand soaks up moisture on the rail. This is as well as it working like traction sand to create more friction. Being able to absorb moisture means hygroscopic sand further lowers the risk of wheels slipping on the track. 

A track worker applying hygroscopic sand on a rail track.


So far, we’ve tested the sand on a small section of track at three locations within the Romford-Upminster track in Greater London positive results.  

We’re now looking to test it further this autumn in Scotland.  

Hygroscopic sand may turn out to be an effective solution to the slippery rail issues we face during the leaf-fall season.   

We continuously research and test innovative methods like this to help keep our railway running safely throughout the seasons – whatever challenges the weather present. We’re doing everything we can to provide a safe and reliable service to you and freight users.  

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