Catching the fall: Network Rail gearing up to ready the railway for Autumn

Across Network Rail’s Southern region – which covers the railway in the south of England from Weymouth to Brighton to Dover – a fleet of ‘leaf-busting’ trains will be in action to keep the railway leaf free and running reliably this Autumn.

19 trains known as Windhoff Multipurpose Vehicles (MPVs) and 6 trains called RHTTs (rail head treatment trains) will operate from the region’s seasonal delivery depots in Effingham, Horsham and Tonbridge.

The specialist trains are equipped with high pressure water jets to blast leaves off the lines and where necessary apply a sand-like gel to help trains grip the rail better.

Operating until mid-December, they will treat a total of 318,000 miles of track – roughly 12 times around the planet – working tirelessly to rid the railway of leaves, snow and ice.

The railway’s black ice

There are millions of trees on or next to the railway and every autumn thousands of tonnes of leaves fall onto the tracks.

The combination of wet weather and passing trains compresses the leaves into a hard slippery layer on the rails. This is the railway’s equivalent of black ice on the roads. Slippery rails make it harder for trains to accelerate and brake effectively, so drivers have to move out of stations more slowly and brake much earlier to stop in time. The build-up of leaves can also create a barrier between the train wheels and the electrical parts of the track that let signallers know where the trains are.

Tackling ice and snow

With climate change blurring the traditional weather conditions expected in each season, Network Rail is also preparing to simultaneously tackle ice and colder weather.

Across much of the railway in the south of England, trains are powered by the conductor rail (also known as the third rail) which can get covered in ice and snow, stopping power reaching trains.

To prevent this from happening MPVs and snow and ice treatment trains (SITT) both scrape ice off the conductor rail head (the top of the conductor rail) and spray the rails with anti-icer.

Autumn timetables

In areas with very heavy leaf-fall some train operators publish special autumn timetables with revised journey timings, including Southeastern which operates across Network Rail’s Kent route. These timetables allow extra time for train drivers to drive more cautiously due to the slippery conditions caused by leaf fall, ice and snow, so that they can get passengers to where they need to go safely and reliably.

Amy Turnbull, Network Rail’s Kent route operations and performance manager, said: “Autumn is a really challenging time for the railway, owing largely to the significant amount of leaf fall and wet weather.

“Our teams will be working tirelessly using our 25-strong fleet of specialist trains to treat a total of 318,000 miles of track across the Southern region – roughly 12 times around the planet – to help keep the tracks leaf and ice free so passenger and freight services are able to continue running safely and reliably this Autumn.”

Dan Tall, Southeastern’s Head of Performance, said: “You wouldn’t think the humble leaf could cause so much trouble, but some fifty million leaves fall onto our tracks each autumn, and when compressed under train wheels, they form a thin layer which can be as treacherous and slippery as black ice.

“Our train drivers need more time to stop and start the trains as the wheels have less grip on the tracks, and so we need to make some changes to our timetable. We’ll keep you well informed on the changes we make through our website and our usual channels.”

Photo / video credits: Network Rail

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