Network Rail's fleet of water jetting trains are well into their stride, on the way to running an incredible 300,000 miles this season as the company mixes brute force with technology to keep trains running. The company gets at least two weather and leaf-fall reports every day to predict conditions and uses those predictions to plan its work and where to focus efforts.
Leaves on the line are no joke, as they get crushed under train wheels and turned into a black ice-like layer*, that makes it harder for trains to grip and in extreme circumstances can stop signalling systems even knowing where trains are.
"Network Rail Southern Region’s Rob Davis said: “It’s so important for our passengers to know we’re doing all we can to keep trains moving reliably for them, particularly during the COVID crisis where people need more space. We’re seeing much more wet and windy weather these days and our fleet of trains is running 24/7 to deal with the leaves that those conditions leave on the line.
“Our train fleet uses water jets to blast the rails clean, at such high pressures that if we stopped the trains from moving they would actually cut clean through the steel. We also lay a paste of gel and steel filings to help trains grip and keep signalling systems working properly.
“This year they will run 300,000 miles over the Southern Region, from Weymouth to Whitstable and all points in between, and will lay almost 50,000 miles of gel on the way. We’re also continuing to manage our trees by the railway and keep the leaves from falling the first place, with an investment of £49m between now and 2024.”
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As well leaf-busting trains, Network Rail has “traction gel applicators” at particularly “leafy” and steep parts on the network, and its mobile teams have equipment in their vans to manually clear the railheads of leaf mulch.
"Scott Brightwell, Train Services Director for Southeastern said: “You wouldn’t think the humble leaf could cause so much trouble – but some 50 million leaves fall onto our tracks every autumn.
When mixed with rain and squashed by train wheels, they form a slippery layer on the rails like black ice. Our drivers need more time to stop and start the trains as the wheels have less grip on the tracks, which is why, working closely with Network Rail, we prepare well in advance.”