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Keeping leaves – and trees – off the line

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Controlling the vegetation that grows alongside the railway is a never-ending job.  It’s worse than painting the Forth Bridge – applying 30-year paint put that ‘never-ending’ problem to bed for a generation. But trees and bushes just keep on growing…

Too much vegetation puts leaves on the line – one of autumn’s regular reasons for train delays. Branches can stretch over the line and damage trains, and trees can be blown over, blocking the railway and pulling down overhead cables.

Blown over in a storm, a tree blocks both lines at Four Ashes, Staffordshire, February 2020.

Trees and shrubs can also cause problems with visibility, preventing train drivers seeing signals and people at level crossings getting a good view of oncoming trains.

Trimming trees near Whitstable.
(Tree climbers don’t have to wear gloves,
so they can adjust their ropes more easily.)

In olden times, sparks from steam trains can set the whole lot on fire. If you look at old photos, there is often not much more than grass banks alongside the railway.  Yes, labour was cheap in those days, but the reason for controlling vegetation was no less valid. Network Rail has even banned heritage steam locomotives from parts of the national network for just that reason.

However, overgrown embankments provide a haven for wildlife, away from human interference. They are also thought to be ‘picturesque’, and hide views of the railway, and each other, from lineside neighbours.

Currently, there is a lot of vegetation clearance going on near Whitstable in Kent, where some types of tree, such as oaks and sycamores, have been unevenly soaking up moisture from the trackbed, causing dips in the track so that a 30mph speed limit has had to be applied.

As it can a contentious issue, Network Rail and its contractor, Coombes, invited Canterbury City Councillor Ashley Clark to have a look and see for himself what was going on.

Cllr Ashley Clark.

He said: “I was pleased to see the lengths to which Network Rail and Coombes have gone to ensure this has been done properly. They’ve taken out what has to be taken out, but they have been leaving as much as they could. It’s important to get the balance right between nature and safety, but safety has to remain paramount.

“We all appreciate nature and it’s importance, but it’s about getting that balance right and communicating with local people so they understand what the railway is doing and why. We saw today people were offering cups of tea and were pleased to talk to us, which shows how important it is that the relationship between the community and the railway is harmonious.”

An annual tree survey identifies trees that could be a threat to trains in storms, either because of their size or their condition, and these are removed separately.

Elsewhere in Kent, Network Rail is testing seven different vegetation management techniques across 70 different sites to understand the cost and environmental impact of different approaches. This will help inform the company’s future approach to lineside management.

David Alderson, Network Rail.

Network Rail project manager David Alderson said: “We cut back trees and shrubs to seven metres from the track, but, in areas where there are houses and gardens, we leave a screen where we can.

“While there may be an immediate change of view, the work actually allows smaller plants to grow through. We want to manage the use of our land in a way that protects, preserves and enhances wildlife, as well as protects trains and passengers.

“The key thing is that we communicate to people what we’re doing and why it is important and I appreciate we haven’t always been able to do that. We want to be a good neighbour to people.”

Craig Mills, Coombes.

Craig Mills, Coombes’ environment manager, added: “It makes such a big difference when our teams are up trees or working in cuttings that people know why they are doing it. Some people will want the trees cut back, but their neighbour might not and the key thing is to explain to people and work with them, so even if they don’t agree with what we’re doing, they understand it.”

“Managing vegetation actually enables improvements in the biodiversity, as it allows important species that would have been dominated to grow up. In fact, today we saw evidence of that already happening in Whitstable.”

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