This autumn, a unique fleet of ‘leaf-busting’ trains are sweeping leaves to help keep passengers and freight moving across the West Midlands and Chiltern main line, and the North West (NW).
Regarded as the railway’s equivalent of black ice on the roads, leaves on the line can create issues when they stick to damp rails and are compressed into a thin, black layer by moving trains, which can affect train braking and acceleration.
The build-up of leaf mulch can also make it difficult for signallers to determine a train’s location, therefore causing delays.
Last autumn, Network Rail spent £2.9 million on the Central and West Coast South routes, and £4.5m on North West routes, to keep passengers moving.
Rob Cummings, Seasonal Improvement Manager at Northern, said “large numbers of leaves on the track, combined with other autumnal conditions, can cause damage to train wheels as the track become slippery."
He added, "when wheels are severely damaged the affected carriage has to be taken out of service and the wheel repaired before the problem becomes even more serious.”
MPVs and RHHTs
In order to tackle the problem, the first step is making sure the railway is cleared, using high pressure water jets, through the use of trains known as MPVs (multi-purpose vehicles) and RHHTs (rail head treatment trains).
Both these types of train are equipped with a high-pressure pump delivering 1,500 Bar and can apply adhesion modifier - a mixture of suspension gel, sand, and steel or iron - to each running rail, to help passenger and freight train wheels grip the tracks.
Traction gel applicators (TGAs) must also be used.
TGAs apply traction gel to the rail head to tackle the build-up of leaf mulch on the head of the running rails. The gel is later picked up by the train wheels and carried along, treating both the wheels and the rail head.
The system applies the product from a track side unit so that as every train passes, continuous conditioning of the wheel and the rail is provided.
Paul Watson, operations director for TransPennine Express, said “Autumn is always a challenge for our drivers as leaves on the line can create difficult driving conditions and have an impact on our punctuality.”
The Operations Director continued, "our trains are fitted with devices that spray sand down on the tracks, providing extra grip when required. However, occasionally our drivers will have to be cautious and drive slower than usual."
He concluded, "if you are travelling this Autumn, please check before you travel and allow extra time when travelling.”
To check that the autumn treatment programme is working effectively and to provide additional support where necessary, specialist teams will be positioned across the West Midlands and Chiltern main line, and NW routes. The operation is set to last until December 12.
Malcolm Holmes, Executive Director for West Midlands Rail Executive, said “the rail industry’s work to keep trains safely moving during autumn is key as we welcome passengers back to train travel."
He added, "leaves on the line is no joke and is something Network Rail is once again taking seriously as it sends out its fleet of treatment trains this year.”
Once the operation is finished, the total miles of track treated for each route will be equivalent to going around the equator 4 times.