Paul Plawecki of Balfour Beatty and Rob Davis of Network Rail with a leaf-busting train

Network Rail’s leaf-buster trains on the move

Wet and windy autumns cause problems for our railway across the country every year. Network Rail’s Southern Region leaf-busting team are on hand to keep passengers safe and on-time as thousands of leaves fall on tracks across Kent and South East London.

And in Kent, passengers are being advised to check they travel from Sunday, as some Southeastern trains will be running to slightly different timings during the autumn.

Network Rail’s fleet of water jetting trains are well into their stride, on the way to running an immense 300,000 miles this season as the company mixes brute force with technology to keep trains running.

The company gets at least two leaf-fall and weather reports every day to foresee conditions and uses those predictions to plan its work and where to focus efforts.

Leaves on the line cause significant problems, as they get crushed under train wheels and turned into a black ice-like layer, that makes it harder for trains to grip and in extreme circumstances can stop signalling systems even knowing where trains are.

As well as leaf-busting trains, Network Rail has ‘traction gel applicator’ at particularly ‘leafy’ and steep parts on the network, and its mobile teams have equipment in their vans to manually clear the railheads of leaf mulch.

Train operators Southeastern has a specific autumn timetable coming into use on the 11th of October, to keep trains running reliably as they take slightly longer between stations in the autumnal conditions.

Network Rail Southern Region’s Rob Davis said: “It’s so important for our passengers to know we’re doing all we can to keep trains moving reliably for them, particularly during the COVID crisis where people need more space. We’re seeing much more wet and windy weather these days and our fleet of trains is running 24/7 to deal with the leaves that those conditions leave on the line.

“Our train fleet uses water jets to blast the rails clean, at such high pressures that if we stopped the trains from moving, they would actually cut clean through the steel. We also lay a paste of gel and steel filings to help trains grip and keep signalling systems working properly.

“This year they will run 300,000 miles over the Southern Region, from Weymouth to Whitstable and all points in between, and will lay almost 50,000 miles of gel on the way. We’re also continuing to manage our trees by the railway and keep the leaves from falling the first place, with an investment of £49m between now and 2024.”

Scott Brightwell, Train Services Director for Southeastern said: “You wouldn’t think the humble leaf could cause so much trouble – but some 50 million leaves fall onto our tracks every autumn. When mixed with rain and squashed by train wheels, they form a slippery layer on the rails like black ice. Our drivers need more time to stop and start the trains as the wheels have less grip on the tracks, which is why, working closely with Network Rail, we prepare well in advance.”

Image: Network Rail 

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