Home Environment The railway prepares its leaf-busting machines to tackle the autumn season

The railway prepares its leaf-busting machines to tackle the autumn season

1 October marks the first day of the railway’s autumn season, and Network Rail’s fleet of 61 leaf-busting trains and 80 leaf-busting teams are being readied to help tackle the annual blight of ‘leaves on the line’ and keep passengers moving safely and reliably over autumn.

Regarded as the railway’s equivalent of black ice on the roads, leaves on the line can create issues when they stick to damp rails and are compressed by moving trains into a thin, black layer which can affect train braking and acceleration. The build-up of leaf mulch can also make it harder for signallers to detect a train’s location, causing delays to services for passengers.

Nick King, Network Rail’s network services director, said: “Our preparation for this year’s autumnal weather has been as comprehensive as ever, and our highly skilled frontline teams and leaf-busting trains will be working non-stop to help keep the tracks clear and services running on time.

“We have worked tirelessly to make sure passengers can travel by rail safely over recent months – for example through enhanced cleaning regimes at stations and introducing hand sanitiser points at our stations. Passengers should continue to follow Government guidance on the use of public transport by wearing a face covering, maintaining social distancing and travelling at quieter times where possible.”

Robert Nisbet, Director of Nations and Regions for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the rail industry, said: “We are committed to making sure that improved performance continues as the seasons change, helping people to travel with confidence.

“Train operators and Network Rail are working together to keep people moving by running leaf-clearing trains, putting response teams on standby and investing in better technology on board trains to reduce the impact of autumnal weather.”

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 apply a gel, containing a mix of sand and steel grains, to help the train wheels run along the tracks as they ordinarily would;
  • We have 80 two-person leaf-busting 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.

Some RHTTs and MPVs are already being deployed on the network, having begun at the start of this week, with the rest set to follow from next week (Monday 5 October). This fleet of autumn treatment trains treated 895,217 miles of track in 2019 – the equivalent of travelling to the moon three and a half times.

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.

Nigel Wordsworth BSc(Hons) MCIJhttp://therailengineer.com

SPECIALIST AREAS Rolling stock, mechanical equipment, project reports, executive interviews


Nigel Wordsworth graduated with an honours degree in Mechanical Engineering from Nottingham University, after which he joined the American aerospace and industrial fastener group SPS Technologies. After a short time at the research laboratories in Pennsylvania, USA, Nigel became responsible for applications engineering to industry in the UK and Western Europe. At this time he advised on various engineering projects, from Formula 1 to machine tools, including a particularly problematic area of bogie design for the HST.

A move to the power generation and offshore oil supply sector followed as Nigel became director of Entwistle-Sandiacre, a subsidiary of the Australian-owned group Aurora plc. At the same time, Nigel spent ten years as a Technical Commissioner with the RAC Motor Sports Association, responsible for drafting and enforcing technical regulations for national and international motor racing series.

Joining Rail Engineer in 2008, Nigel’s first assignment was a report on new three-dimensional mobile mapping and surveying equipment, swiftly followed by a look at vegetation control machinery. He continues to write on a variety of topics for most issues.

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