Autumn is approaching – or may even already be here. And with that come leaves on the line, slippery conditions, train delays and cancellations.
Every autumn, the trees that grow along the railway drop thousands of tonnes of leaves onto the tracks and this debris can break down into a slippery surface that sticks to the rails and causes trains to lose their grip.
The film left by crushed leaves on the steel rails acts like a lubricant, so trains spin their wheels more easily, causing slow acceleration and damaging the wheel surfaces, and also take further to stop, which also slows journeys and, in extreme cases, can cause trains to overshoot stations and signals.
There are two solutions to this problem. One is to cut the trees back, reducing the number of overhanging branches and therefore the quantity of leaves that are dropped.
The other is to deal with the immediate problem. So, every autumn, an increasing arsenal of rail surface treatment trains and other equipment is deployed to break down the surface film left by crushed leaves and literally blow it off the rail heads using high-pressure water jets.
Wales and Scotland have been making their own arrangements for the coming battle.
In Scotland, rail cleaning trains will treat 20,000 more miles of track than last year, more ‘Leaf Buster’ teams will be out on the network and small changes to the timetable will help make the service more reliable.
Ground-breaking microwave and cryogenic technologies – using microwaves to blast the slippery leaf mulch from the rails and cryogenic (dry ice) pellets to instantly freeze and disperse debris – will also be used for the very first time on Scotland’s Railway to help keep rails clean the trains running on time.
Rapid response crews will be based at key points across the network ready to react quickly to clean specific locations where drivers report poor conditions.
Liam Sumpter, Network Rail Scotland route director, said: “This autumn we will be running a huge operation to treat tracks and keep trains running.
“We have teams of engineers out on the ground and our rail head treatment trains will also work around-the-clock cleaning rails and adding adhesives to improve train wheels’ grip.
“Since last autumn, we have been working with experts to develop new microwave and cryogenic technologies that we are trialling for the first time this year and which will clear leaf mulch from the rails more effectively than ever before.
“We know few things annoy customers more than when their train is delayed because of leaves on the line, but the reality is that leaf debris can be dangerous – acting like black ice on the rail and leading to disruption.”
Transport for Wales and Network Rail have been working hard to ensure the rail industry in Wales is prepared for the autumn period.
TfW has brought forward the fitment of Wheel Slide Protection to many of its trains, as well as “automatic sander” technology to provide improved resilience for its fleet. Network Rail has been pro-actively managing vegetation and will be delivering more rail head treatment than ever before and have also put in place frontline response teams.
Alexia Course, Transport for Wales Rail operations director, said: “The customer experience is at the heart of our decision making and we recognise how autumn conditions have the potential to affect our services.
“Many months have been spent preparing for Autumn, including a full review of last year with a focus on how we can improve, based on the recommendations of two independent reports. As a result, we have fitted many of our trains with Wheel Slide Protection, we’ve invested in additional spare wheels and upgraded our wheel repair facilities at our Canton train maintenance depot.
“As an industry, we understand the challenge we face but we want to reassure our customers that we have carried out preparation and we are ready to work hard to provide the best services we can throughout the period.”