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How Will Drones and Leaf-busting Trains Keep Tracks Clear?

3 min

Image Credit: Network Rail
Network Rail is using a fleet of ‘leaf-busting’ trains to ensure that passengers and freight keep moving across the North West this autumn. Quadrant Transport looks at how drones and leaf-busting trains will support the travelling public.

From this week (3 October 2022) until 12 December 2022, six specialist trains will clean leaf debris from up to 96,000 miles of track across the region while trees are shedding their leaves. Aerial drones are also being used for the first time to check known hotspots where leaf fall can cause the worst disruption.

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.

A More Reliable Service Will Be Seen Through Cleaning The Tracks

Five trains known as multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs) will work from Wigan, while another train, known as RHHT (rail head treatment train) will operate from Carlisle Kingmoor depot in Cumbria.

It is said by Network Rail that the total miles of track treated over this time will be equivalent to going 3.855 times around the equator.

After the railway lines have been cleared with high-pressure water jets, the machines apply rails with a sand-like gel to help passenger and freight train wheels grip the tracks.

Two autumn treatment trains or MPVs facing each other
Image Credit: Network Rail

Rob Cummings, seasonal improvement manager at Northern, said: “We are working hard as an industry to clear leaves from the line and to keep disruption to a minimum during the autumn period.

“We have introduced special timetables on problematic routes to give our customers a more reliable service and our drivers also have advanced training to help develop techniques which further reduce the impact of slippery rails.”

We are also helping to develop new innovative technology that will reduce the impact of leaves on the line.

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. In addition to this, the build-up of leaf mulch can make it harder for signallers to detect a train’s location, causing delays.

Additional Support Will Be Provided Across The North West

During its autumn efforts last year, Network Rail spent £5 million on the North West route to keep passengers moving. This year, 77 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.

Jerry Farquharson, Service Planning Director at TransPennine Express, said: “Autumn conditions including wet weather combined with leaves on the line can create challenging conditions which can result in disruption and delays for our customers.

“Our modern trains are all fitted with devices that spray sand on to the tracks to provide extra grip but despite this, sometimes our drivers need to adapt the way they drive and slow down.”

We continue to work closely with our industry partners including Network Rail to keep customers moving and recommend that anyone travelling checks their journey prior to travelling.

Specialist teams will be positioned across the North West to check that Network Rail’s autumn treatment programme is working effectively and if necessary, can provide additional support.