Network Rail’s leaf-busting machines ready to tackle autumnal deluge

As the cold mornings draw in and the leaves start to brown, Network Rail is busily preparing its 61 leaf-busting trains to keep passengers moving safely over autumn.

Passengers expect and deserve a reliable, punctual train service, which is why this autumn, Network Rail and its train operating colleagues will be working flat out – preparing specialist equipment and undertaking specialist driver training – to better cope with the annual blight of ‘leaves on the line’ – the railway’s equivalent of black ice on the roads.

Nick King, network services director at Network Rail, said: “Leaves on the line is a well-known issue on railways across the world. Our leaf-busting trains and highly-trained frontline teams will be working around the clock over the next few months to keep the tracks clear and rail services running.

“Even with these plans in place, on some particularly autumnal days it will be a challenge to operate the railway as punctually as we would want to. I would like to thank passengers for their patience and understanding while our staff work to keep them moving safely and reliably this autumn.”

When leaves fall on to the tracks, they stick to damp rails, and passing trains compress them into a thin, black layer which can affect train braking and acceleration. This forces drivers to slow down earlier for stations and signals to avoid overshooting them. Autumn can also present problems for our signallers, because the build-up of leaf mulch makes it harder to detect a train’s location, causing delays when subsequent trains are unable to proceed until the train in front is further up the line.

Network Rail’s autumn preparation programme includes a number of measures:

  • A total of 61 leaf-busting trains – 29 Railhead Treatment Trains (RHTT) and 32 Multi-Purpose Vehicles (MPV) – which move around the network, cleaning the top of the rail by spraying it with a water jet at very high pressure (1500 bar) to blast away leaf mulch
  • These trains also lay adhesion modifier, a composite material of sand and steel shot suspended in a gel-like substance, which is applied to the rail to clear the tracks and help ensure the signalling system works correctly
  • We have teams available 24/7 at key locations to scrub the top of the rails by hand with a sand-based treatment
  • Management and replacement of lineside vegetation with species less likely to shed leaves on to the tracks
  • Between 1 October and 13 December, Network Rail receives adhesion forecasts twice a day from a specialist weather forecaster, highlighting locations that require action. This allows resources to be planned more effectively
  • As an industry, we work together to run a safe and reliable service. In areas with heavy leaf-fall, some operators publish special autumn timetables with revised journey timings to allow train drivers to drive more cautiously than usual.

Network Rail’s autumn treatment trains covered 1,418,169 miles in 2018 – the equivalent of travelling to the moon and back three times.