Changing the way we manage trackside vegetation

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Oct/Nov 2014

An innovative research project developed in response to the government’s Natural Environment white paper could change the way vegetation next to rail tracks is managed, delivering biodiversity gains and ecological connectivity as well as improving the resilience of rail infrastructure to climate change, says Marion Frandsen, senior landscape consultant at ADAS, the national agricultural and environmental consultancy.

Most environmental research projects provide answers, but few have the capacity to bring about widespread management changes. This is what makes the current project, known as NEWP32, so exciting and why it has the capacity to make such an impact. From the rail industry’s perspective, it will form the basis of how we can work with the 20,000 miles of ‘soft estate’ – the land adjacent to Britain’s rail tracks.

The project aims to deliver significant environmental improvements at key ‘hotspots’. These are sections of soft estate with the greatest potential to deliver biodiversity, network resilience to climate change and wider environmental benefits, such as improvements to water quality (identified through a spatial mapping tool) which will then contribute to the ecological network of the wider countryside.

The collaborative nature of the project is key to its success. Commenced in November 2013 in response to the government’s Natural Environment white paper (NEWP), it is being delivered through a partnership between Natural England, Network Rail, the Highways Agency and the Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Partnerships. The commitment of these stakeholder organisations takes the project from the realms of theory into practice.

All partner organisations have been deeply involved, actively participating in expert workshops, consultations and the production of the initial research report, due to be published by Natural England imminently. At the outset there was a detailed consultation with Network Rail staff in the NIA pilot study areas of Morecambe Bay and the Humberhead Levels.

Tree lined track

Tree risk and surveys

ADAS was commissioned to deliver the first phase of the project. We have many years’ experience of delivering large-scale collaborative projects within the environmental sector, including extensive work related to infrastructure corridors. In particular we were able to draw on our practical experience in delivering large-scale lineside tree surveys, as well as our tree risk models developed with Scottish Power and Lancaster University. ADAS is also currently undertaking an extensive and innovative LiDAR survey of vegetation near overhead lines for UK Power Networks, covering some 19,000 miles of lines in the south east and east regions, in collaboration with Bluesky Ltd.

In the initial phase of the NEWP32 project, ADAS carried out a detailed literature review to establish how, and the extent to which, transport corridors are providing environmental benefits in the UK and beyond. Working alongside Network Rail and the other project partners, we used geographic information systems (GIS) to establish where practical land management would best be applied along transport corridors to achieve the greatest environmental benefits. This research and analysis is detailed in ADAS’s initial research report, which represents the final output of the first phase of the project.

NEWP 32 Transport Green Corridors, Appendix 5a

The value of scrubland and coppiced woodland

The project has brought a number of management issues into clear focus. Much is known about the risk presented by the failure of trees, but our findings so far have also shown, for example, the value of scrubland and coppiced woodland. In some cases, they provide a complementary and alternative habitat to woodland.

Alongside this, the project has also identified the potential to enhance and extend species-rich grassland on the rail soft estate, which is a high priority habitat particularly in relation to pollinators. Furthermore it could help to support the objectives set out in the National Pollinator Strategy. This brings together pollinator-friendly initiatives in response to the declines in the health and populations of bees and other pollinators seen globally as posing a risk to biodiversity, long-term food security and ultimately human health.

A key factor in this novel approach is the consideration of the railway corridor’s vegetation as part of a wider ecological network of habitats. The strategy developed takes this into account by encouraging the alignment of vegetation management on the transport soft estate and neighbouring landowners’ land so that environmental benefits are delivered on a broader scale.

In addition, the project has shown that management strategies can deliver multiple environmental benefits. As heavy rainfall is becoming more prevalent, sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) such as soakaways and balancing ponds are identified as key soft estate design features that can improve both water quality and reduce flood risk caused by run-off. At the conclusion of the project’s first phase, management options have been developed for key priority habitats including woodland, grassland and wetland. Network Rail is now looking at implementing these management options in up to six opportunity areas identified in each of the two NIAs in Morcambe Bay and Humberhead Levels.

The wider benefits

Going into the second phase of the project (to be undertaken over a period of three years), dedicated local project officers are now being appointed, working with the NIA partner members and Network Rail to ensure environmental baseline monitoring work is completed. They will monitor the extent of ecological and wider environmental benefits and the extent to which the operational risks are minimised.

Network Rail engineers managing vegetation

At the end of the three year period these officers will report on the key findings. The aim is then, in conjunction with the findings of the initial research report, to inform the company’s wider land management practice across the remainder of the Network Rail soft estate.

In addition to this commitment to change, Network Rail and the Highways Agency also bring an immense land resource to the project. Network Rail’s soft estate covers some 20,000 miles and contains over 200 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The Highways Agency manages 22,000 hectares of land, supporting a wide range of habitats, including over 40 million trees. Other large-scale infrastructure managers such as National Grid have also expressed interest in the project’s findings.

NEWP32 is not just another study. It has already delivered value beyond its initial conception in the white paper as a Natural England research project. A novel and collaborative approach has been developed, which is going to lead to change and long-term environmental benefits at a national scale.

The value will be seen initially in the two selected NIAs, but in time the project will extend to other areas. Going forward, we expect NEWP32 to influence the future management of all transport and infrastructure corridors in the UK.

Hitchin Cambridge Junction credit Network Rail edit

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]

(Top image: Alvey & Towers)


There are no comments. Why not be the first?

Add your comment

rail technology magazine tv

more videos >

latest rail news

View all News

rail industry focus

Versatile coating system enhances Indestructible Paint rail industry role

12/08/2020Versatile coating system enhances Indestructible Paint rail industry role

A highly versatile and robust epoxy coating s... more >
Network Rail partners with Cycling UK for new initiative

03/08/2020Network Rail partners with Cycling UK for new initiative

Network Rail and Cycling UK have launched a p... more >

editor's comment

23/01/2018Out with the old...

Despite a few disappointing policy announcements, especially for the electrification aficionados amongst us, 2017 was, like Darren Caplan writes on page 20, a year generally marked by positive news for the rail industry. We polished off the iconic Ordsall Chord (p32), hit some solid milestones on Thameslink (p40), progressed on ambitious rolling stock orders (p16), and finally started moving forward on HS2 (p14) ‒ paving the way for a New Year with brand-new infrastructrure to... read more >

last word

Encouraging youngsters to be safe on the railway

Encouraging youngsters to be safe on the railway

This summer, Arriva Group's CrossCountry and the Scout Association joined to launch a new partnership to promote rail safety among young people. Chris Leech MBE, business community manager at the TOC, gives RTM an update on the innovative scheme. Recognising that young people are more likely to take a risk trespassing on railway tracks, C... more > more last word articles >

'the sleepers' daily blog

On the right track, Sulzer is awarded RISAS accreditation for Nottingham Service Centre

29/06/2020On the right track, Sulzer is awarded RISAS accreditation for Nottingham Service Centre

Following an independent audit, Sulzer’s Nottingham Service Centre has been accepted as part of the rail industry supplier approval scheme (RISAS). The accreditation reinforces the high-quality standards that are maintained by Sulzer’s network of independent repair facilities across the UK and further afield in its global network. ... more >
read more blog posts from 'the sleeper' >


Andrew Haines, CE of Network Rail, tells BBC News his organisation could issue future rail franchises

24/06/2019Andrew Haines, CE of Network Rail, tells BBC News his organisation could issue future rail franchises

Andrew Haines, the Chief Executive of Network Rail, has told the Today programme on Radio 4's BBC’s flagship news programme that he wo... more >
Advancing the rail industry with management degree apprenticeships

08/05/2019Advancing the rail industry with management degree apprenticeships

In answering the pressing questions of how current and future generations of managers can provide solutions to high-profile infrastructure projec... more >
Women in rail - is the industry on the right track?

12/03/2019Women in rail - is the industry on the right track?

RTM sits down with Samantha Smith, sole female member of the TransPennine Route Upgrade Alliance Leadership Team, to find out more about encourag... more >
TfN Strategic Transport Plan: not just for transport's sake

22/01/2019TfN Strategic Transport Plan: not just for transport's sake

Peter Molyneux, Transport for the North’s (TfN’s) strategic roads director, has been leading on the development of the seven economic... more >