Railtrack and the train operators are hoping that a pre-emptive strike against the forces of nature will ensure this autumn’s timetable is not wrecked by leaves on the line.
All through the summer new technologies and equipment have been deployed along the nation’s rail infrastructure. Over £50m has been spent so far.
The problem caused by leaves on the line – `low railhead adhesion’, as it is technically known – results from the hard Teflon-like coating produced when train wheels crush foliage falling on the tracks. This can lead to train wheels slipping while braking or spinning under traction. Railtrack compares the phenomenon to black ice on roads.
A collision at Slough Station in 1994 was blamed on the problem.
The company’s latest anti-leaf weapon is the multi-purpose vehicle (MPV). Twenty five MPVs have been bought, costing a total of £40m. The vehicles are equipped with a high-pressure water cannon and a hard grit applicator to blast leaves off the line. They can also deal with ice, weeds and trackside fires. Two are in action now, with the rest of the fleet arriving by summer 2000.
Meanwhile, global positioning satellites are being used to pinpoint blackspots. The equipment, developed in conjunction with AEA Technology, has been fitted to some Central Trains, and to Chiltern, Connex and Thameslink fleets to monitor wheel slippage.
The information is relayed via satellite to one of Railtrack’s adhesion control units which is then able to allocate a track clearing vehicle to the section.
A Great Eastern Class 315 has been fitted with a railhead scrubber to grind away leaves. A fleet of over 80 gritting trains, along with the two MPVs, will run `dawn patrols’, treating rails before passenger trains begin operating.
Leaf fences have been erected to stop leaves blowing onto rails and plastic guards are being fitted to rails to prevent leaves covering them. Some trains have been fitted with hoppers to deposit sand in front of their wheels.
The rail industry has been the butt of jokes about leaves on the line for years. Chris Leah, Railtrack’s director of operations, admitted that it would try anything in an attempt to prevent autumn’s train timetable being affected. `We are determined to improve the way we tackle the problem,’ he said.