Using cryogenics to blast leaves from the line

Did you know that autumn is often the most challenging season for our railway? Find out how we’re hoping to tackle it using an exciting new technology.  

Every autumn, thousands of tonnes of leaves fall onto our track throughout Britain. Over time these leaves create a slippery, sludgy layer on the rail head.  

And it’s not just leaves that are a problem. Moisture from dew, rain and vegetation and trees can also create slippery rails this season. 

Slippery rails are like black ice on the roads. They make it hard for trains to accelerate and brake effectively – there’s a very real risk of trains overshooting signals and stops. To counter this, trains may have to move more slowly along the track, and brake and accelerate more slowly and for longer to avoid slipping. This can lead to delays and disruptions to your journeys.

Cryogenics

Since 2019, we’ve worked with the university of Sheffield to trial an innovative tech called cryogenics to tackle leaves on the line.  

An artificial intelligence camera is first fitted onto one of our railhead treatment trains and used to identify areas on the track that contain contaminants like leaves or other type of moisture. Once the camera has identified an area, the cryogenic unit at the bottom of the train shoots out dry ice pellets. These pellets cause the leaves to crack and break away. These droplets will similarly freeze and smash away if there’s any moisture on the rail – leaving the rail head clean once more.  

A cryogenic unit at the bottom of a specially-fitted train in action.

Early trials in Scotland have led to positive results. Cryogenics does indeed seem to be an effective way to clear the rails of leaves and moisture – so trains can run more safely on the track.  

Plus, cryogenics offers a potentially more environmentally friendly solution than our traditional method of cleaning the rail head with water because it uses less energy and resources.  

Future 

We’ll continue trialling this tech on parts of our track in Scotland and Yorkshire this autumn. We’ll also need to look at ways to fit this tech onto some of our passenger trains.  

We’re committed to offering you and freight a safe, reliable and modern railway – whatever challenges the weather presents. Innovation and research like this are essential to this. 

Watch this video to find out how we keep your trains moving throughout this challenging season: 

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