I'm a train driver – here's why leaves on the line are a problem

I’m a train driver – here’s why it’s harder to operate with leaves on the line (and how we work around it)

  • A driver for TransPennine Express explains why fallen leaves can be a hazard 
  • He notes that when trains drive over leaves, they create a ‘Teflon-like surface’
  • READ MORE: I’m a pilot – here’s a guide to three different types of turbulence

While falling leaves in autumn might be a pretty sight, they can wreak havoc for railway companies. 

This unwelcome rite of the season poses a huge obstacle for trains across the UK, leading to cancellations and delays every year. 

In what way can stray leaves on the tracks prove hazardous? Steve Whitehead, Lead Driver Manager for TransPennine Express (TPE), which operates trains and stations across the North of England and into Scotland, explains: ‘It’s not necessarily difficult for trains to move over leaves, but because trains are heavy vehicles, they crush the leaves which causes them to create a slippery coating on the tracks.

‘This Teflon-like surface that is created on the train tracks is akin to black ice on the road.’ 

Whitehead – who assesses train drivers as well as driving trains himself – notes that this poses ‘significant difficulties’ for train drivers, as they ‘must adapt their driving techniques and, at times, slow down to ensure passenger safety’. 

Steve Whitehead (above), Lead Driver Manager for TransPennine Express, explains why leaves on railway lines can prove hazardous 

This change in driving technique, he reveals, ‘can involve modifying the braking area and braking lighter and earlier than you would do in normal conditions’. 

He continues: ‘As experienced drivers, we are always aware of the listed and known areas that can be affected by leaves on the line but we must be prepared at all locations where we need to reduce the speed of the train or stop.’  

There are certain leaf-combatting mechanisms in place, too. Paul Staples – the Fleet, Safety and Service Delivery Director for TPE – explains that the railway company’s trains are equipped with railhead sanding technology, which applies coarse gritty sand between the wheels and the rails when the trains need extra grip during braking and accelerating.  

This helps prevent the wheels from either slipping or locking up. 

He notes that the trains also have a ‘Wheel Slide Prevention’ system, which is an automatic system used to detect and prevent wheel slide during breaking or wheel slip during acceleration. Staples notes that this is ‘of great assistance when driving in slippery conditions’. 

Trains ‘crush the leaves’ on the tracks ‘which causes them to create a slippery coating on the tracks’, Whitehead explains  

TransPennine Express trains are equipped with railhead sanding technology, which applies coarse gritty sand between the wheels and the rails when the trains need extra grip during braking and accelerating 

However, despite these measures, Paul says there are circumstances when speed reductions become necessary – TPE warns that this can cause a ripple effect on other services, which may result in delays or changes to schedules. 

Paul explains that TPE takes extra measures to reduce these delays. He says: ‘We work alongside Network Rail, which works year-round to manage the trees and plants that grow next to the railway so that we can minimise train delays caused by leaf-fall.’

To prepare for the seasonal obstacle, Network Rail sends out ‘leaf-busting’ trains, which move around the railways blasting the top of the rail with a high-pressure water jet to remove leaf mulch. 

The trains also apply a gel containing a mixture of sand and steel grains to help the train wheels run along the tracks as normal. 

Not only that, Network Rail employs ‘leaf-busting’ teams at key locations across the UK to scrub the top of the rails by hand with a sad-based treatment to make sure trains can run safely. 

They also ensure year-round ‘vegetation management’, by monitoring the trees and plants that grow around railways that could pose a risk to the safe running of trains. 

Staples adds: ‘The safety and comfort of our passengers are of paramount importance, and we must ensure a secure and smooth journey experience, even during the challenging autumn leaf fall season.’ 

During autumn, TPE advises travellers stay informed and check their website for updates ahead of their journey. 

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