Aquarius Rail Sand Rover in action, via Istock

Sand Rover reaches 'Top Gear' leaving autumn blues behind

Network Rail are tackling the yearly nuisance of leaves on the line through a Top Gear esque innovation within rolling stock through a specially adapted 4x4 vehicle which can travel on rails and on the road. This vehicle, labelled as Sand Rover, is being deployed in the Devon region following a successful trial which saw a reduction of 80% in delays as a result of leaf fall on the tracks.

The Sand Rover operates through the use of specially mounted wire brushes which clean slippery leaf mulch off the lines as the vehicles travels through. During this process, the rover also applies a citrus-based treatment to the track, further breaking up any residual leaves whilst coating the rails with dry sand to help maintain the grip throughout the wetter autumnal season.

Leaves on the tracks can create seriously hazardous conditions as the fallen leaves rapidly break down into a slippery mulch which acts in a similar fashion to that of ice on roads. These conditions make it difficult for trains to quickly stop when necessary, creating major safety concerns for passenger travel. This causes the trains to travel at slower speeds to accommodate, causing delays for passengers and freight customers.

Throughout autumn 2020 Network Rail began trialling the Sand Rover on the Tarka line, running between Barnstaple and Exeter, which saw an 87% reduction in delays caused by fallen leaves when compared with previous autumn seasons. Autumn 2021 saw a further expansion of this trial as Network Rail deployed the Sand Rover on the Dartmoor line.

The trial locations were chosen as they experience a high volume of leaf falls and are not easily accessible to the traditional head treatment trains (RHTTs), which use high-pressure water jets to clean the tracks. Both locations saw averages that reached heights of 80% fewer delay minutes when compared to the three years prior.

Craig Hocking, Network Rail’s infrastructure maintenance engineer, said:

“Our successful trial of the Sand Rover on the Tarka line in 2020 and Dartmoor line last year significantly reduced autumn-related delays for our passengers, which is why we’re fully utilising it this year to combat leaf fall.

“The Sand Rover is ideal for use on branch lines in Devon that see high leaf fall levels and allows us to proactively concentrate on specific areas and treat them quickly at the touch of a button from the cab of the vehicle.

“This year we’re pleased to be using the Sand Rover again at night when the trains aren’t running, with its proven track record of delay reduction. We’ll also be using our special treatment trains across Devon and Cornwall to clean the rails throughout autumn and our teams will be ready to respond to any issues that arise to minimise any delays for passengers.”

Across the Western Route, four RHTT’s are used for keeping almost 2,000 miles of track free from leaf fall mulch, with similar measures being in place for the entire country as a nationwide fleet of leaf busting trains treating around 1.04 million miles of track each autumn, equivalent to travelling to the moon and back twice.

Scott Harrison, managing director of Aquarius Railroad Technologies said:

“We’re delighted that the Sand Rover has been so successful for the team in Devon.

“We understand that seasonal weather can be a real concern when trying to keep tracks safe for rolling stock, and ensuring a seamless service is of the utmost importance to Network Rail and operators alike.

“Sand Rovers are available for deployment across the UK, and we are proud to report that they can access even the hardest to reach areas of track. If a leaf can fall there, a Sand Rover can get there!”

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