Footage shows solution to autumnal leaves on railway lines

Rail operator Northern has released footage of technology undergoing tests to blast leaves from the path of its trains.

Water-Trak technology on the underside of a Northern Train
Water-Trak technology on the underside of a Northern Train - Northern

Leaves stick to damp rails and passing trains compress them into a smooth, slippery layer that can cause disruption to services.  

To overcome this, rail head treatment technology that is attached to the undercarriage of passenger trains is undergoing trials.

The Water-Trak technology is based on the discovery that leaf-coated rails only become slippery if damp, noting that trains still stop safely in heavy rain. Water-Trak creates wet conditions on the rail surface by spraying a small amount of water from the train onto the track when a slippery rail is detected. This cleans the rail and makes the conditions better for braking.

Railway lines are cleaned currently by using dedicated railhead treatment trains (RHTTs), but their numbers are limited. RHTTs are also expensive to run, so they are mainly used to clean high-traffic, intercity lines.

Five Northern trains fitted with Water-Trak will be operating this autumn on routes between Liverpool, Wigan and Manchester as well as between Leeds, Harrogate and York. The trials with Northern are being run with funding from Network Rail’s Performance Innovation Fund

In a statement, Rob Cummings, seasonal performance improvement manager at Northern, said: “We’re pleased to be working with Water-Trak to try and provide a better, more reliable service in tricky autumn conditions. This is the next stage of this trial that we hope will take us closer to our goal.” 

By autumn 2024 a further 11 trains will have the Water-Trak system fitted. 

John Cooke, co-founder at Water-Trak, said: “Slippery rails are a massive problem for the rail industry, and we hope to play a big part in resolving this issue. We’re hoping that by working with Northern we can make autumn disruption a thing of the past.”