Rail sleepers

Network Rail's first recycled plastic sleepers on mainline tracks

Network Rail have introduced the first composite railway sleepers on their mainline tracks. The trains in Wiltshire will now run over recycled bottles, food packaging, and other unwanted plastics.

The environmentally-friendly technology was recently installed by engineers across the weight-restricted Sherrington Viaduct, between Salisbury and Warminster.

Wooden sleepers would have been previously fitted across the viaduct due to concrete sleepers being too heavy for the structure. However, creosote-treated softwood sleepers will be banned in the UK from 31 July this year, and the alternative sleepers will be made with hardwood.

It follows on from the EU-wide ban on the carcinogenic substance creosote in 2013, with railway sleepers exempt until July 31. The new composite sleepers will use a blend of locally-sourced plastic waste that usually ends up at landfill.

Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, said: “I am proud to see such a positive innovation being used for the first time on the mainline railway.

“Not only are these sleepers made from locally-sourced plastic waste, they need less maintenance and will last longer, underlining our commitment to create a greener, cleaner and more efficient rail network.”

The recycled composite sleepers are expected to help Network Rail achieve its Zero Carbon 2050 target of at least a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the production of sleepers. Their goal is to embed recycled plastic within the track infrastructure for at least 50 years.

Network Rail’s Wessex Route Director, Mark Killick, said: “This is an exciting development; use of these recycled sleepers on the Network Rail Wessex route is a first for the overground railway network in Britain.

“Rail is already one of the greenest ways to travel, but we’re committed to even greener and better journeys whether this be changing how we maintain the lineside or finding innovative ways to improve the railway by reusing materials and reducing landfill.

“By using these sleepers, not only are we upgrading the track for customers, they will be travelling on a railway laid using sustainable materials as part of the circular economy.”

In comparison to timber sleepers, they are also predicted to increase service life and reduce maintenance, helping reduce whole life costs and the risks to staff when attending the site.

Other benefits of composite sleepers – compared to traditional wooden sleepers - include not splitting, rotting, or degrading over time, as well as being able to resist water, oil, chemicals and fungi.

They will also be able to be re-used, re-purposed or recycled to make new sleepers or other composite products, when they are eventually replaced.

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