With temperatures dropping across Britain, we're preparing for the impact of very cold weather.
Just like road and air travel, wintry weather can pose challenges for the rail network, with its effects ranging from speed restrictions on exposed routes, to services being suspended due to avalanches.
High winds can blow objects on to the line and heavy rain can cause flooding and landslips, which means trains must stop until the line is cleared, and a thorough safety inspection of the track is carried out.
Low temperatures can also cause points, movable sections of track that trains to move from one line to another, to freeze up, preventing trains from accessing certain routes or platforms.
To help keep passengers moving, Network Rail operates a special winter fleet – complete with snow ploughs, hot air blowers, steam jets, brushes, scrapers and anti-freeze – to clear snow and ice from the tracks and has fitted over 100km of special heating strips to prevent ice building up on conductor rails which power trains in the south and south east of England.
Network Rail and the wider rail industry’s winter preparation programme includes a number of measures:
- 10 snow and ice treatment trains (SITTs) fitted with snow ploughs, hot air blowers, steam jets, brushes, scrapers and jets for heated anti-freeze and compressed air to quickly de-ice tracks
- 12 independent snow plough locomotives to clear deep snow from the tracks, as well as a number of mid-range ploughs
- We've attached heaters and NASA-grade insulation to points to prevent ice forming and added protective covers to 4,000 points and 2,500 points motors to keep snow out and prevent damage by ice falling from trains
- Thousands of our people patrol the tracks day and night clearing snow and ice from junctions and tunnels
- Our remote temperature monitoring and a helicopter fitted with thermal imaging cameras identify points heaters that are not working effectively
- Anti-icing fluid and heating strips are used on live conductor rails to prevent ice building up and preventing trains from drawing power; the addition of heating strips has reduced ice-related incidents by up to 80%
- Train companies run empty trains through the night to help keep tracks clear, and passenger trains can be fitted with snow ploughs which can clear up to eight inches of snow – if it's deeper, we send in our fleet of dedicated snow ploughs
- Major routes that are the most at risk have been fitted with fences that prevent snow blowing on to the tracks
- We use ballast – the stones beneath the track – treated with anti-icing fluid for our winter engineering work, as this stops it freezing together in the delivery wagons and helps us to continue working in all temperatures.
Detailed forecasts from weather experts MetDesk are used by Network Rail to formulate local action plans during adverse weather to minimise disruption to passengers. The forecasts cover not just the weather but how the conditions will impact on specific railway infrastructure such as the tracks, conductor rails and overhead power lines. A network of hundreds of monitoring stations also provides real-time weather data, enabling Network Rail to respond to conditions as they develop in real time.
Network Rail’s winter preparedness regime begins in September each year. Special trains and equipment are fully checked and any repairs carried out, while contingency plans are reviewed and agreed with train operators to keep passengers moving during adverse weather.
Andy Thomas, managing director of strategic operations at Network Rail said: “We work closely with train operators to minimise any impact on passenger services during winter weather such as snow and ice. Key sections of track are fitted with heaters and insulation to help stop them freezing, and empty trains can be run through the night to help keep tracks clear. We have extra teams of people on the ground to respond to incidents and carry out regular inspections of our infrastructure.
“When conditions are very serious, trains might have to slow down – just as a car would on a road – this is so everyone can get where they need to go, safely.”