A fleet of seven specialist trains is being used by Network Rail in the North West to keep track clean of leaf-fall debris so that trains can run safely and reliably.
When trains run over fallen leaves, the resultant black deposit on the top of the railhead acts as a lubricant, making trains’ wheels slip as they try to accelerate and slide as they try to brake to a stop.
Drivers therefore have to drive more cautiously, and this can lead to delays. The build-up of leaf mulch can also make it harder for signallers to detect a train’s location, causing delays.
For this reason, from 1 October until 12 December, a fleet of ‘leaf-busting’ trains will be blasting leaves and their residue off a total of 97,000 miles of track across the North West while trees are shedding their leaves.
Network Rail’s seasonal delivery depot at Wigan Springs Branch is the North West’s nerve centre for keeping tracks clear between Crewe and Carlisle this autumn.
Six MPV trains (multi-purpose vehicles) will work from Wigan, while another train, known as an RHHT (rail head treatment train), will operate from Carlisle Kingmoor depot in Cumbria.
After railway lines have been cleared with high pressure water jets, the machines then apply rails with a sand-like gel to help passenger and freight train wheels grip the tracks.
Last year Network Rail spent £4.5 million on the North West route during its autumn efforts to keep passengers moving. This year, 170 traction gel applicators have been positioned across the routes rail network. They spray a special sand-like gel onto the rails to help provide extra grip for train wheels.
Talisa Fletcher, Network Rail service delivery manager, said: “Leaves on the line are a big problem for the railway. It disrupts services and inconveniences people’s journeys and every year, Network Rail and train operators work together to battle against the elements to get passengers and freight to their destinations.
“Even more work has gone into getting prepared for autumn this year because of the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, including how we operate the trains themselves. We are ready to keep people and goods moving across the North West by running a reliable service for our customers as they return to the railway as a safe and green way to travel.”
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. 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.
“We are working hard as an industry to clear leaves from the line and to keep disruption to a minimum during the autumn period. Our trains are fitted with sand blasters which treat the tracks as they move, and we have introduced special timetables on problematic routes to give our customers a more reliable service. Our drivers also have advanced training to help develop techniques which further reduce the impact of slippery rails.”