How does the railway prepare for wintry weather?

Published on: Monday, 24 January 2022
Last updated: Monday, 24 January 2022

  • Your journey

Planning for winter weather conditions is a year-round job for Greater Anglia’s Performance and Planning teams, who work closely with Network Rail to ensure robust plans and processes are in place should the region be affected by snow and ice.

They analyse how services performed during past weather events to learn what can be done to improve things in the future before the first snowflake has even fallen, and they receive daily weather forecasts so that they can be prepared.

And when wintry weather arrives – typically during February and March for East Anglia - Greater Anglia and Network Rail work together, with extra staff on hand to reduce the impact of snowy conditions on train services.

Railway staff help to keep customers safe and services running as well as possible, including clearing platforms of snow and ice, de-icing train doors, and running trains with snow ploughs to keep the tracks clear.

Our performance teams plan for all types of weather and regular conferences between all our depot, fleet, control room and customer service teams and Network Rail ensure that the correct actions are being taken across the business to prepare the train fleet for maximum reliability.

In addition, Network Rail maintains points heaters installed at key locations on the route to help melt snow and ice and prevent them seizing up and affecting services.

They have also planted ‘instant’ hedgerows -for example, along the Felixstowe – Ipswich line - which are already mature and so large enough to help prevent snow drifting on to the railway.

They also apply a ‘hydrophobic’ resin coating to structures, such as Ipswich tunnel, to prevent water ingress that could lead to icicle formation.

How do trains cope with snow and ice?

Our new fleet of trains have snow-busting features built-in to keep services running smoothly and safely, such as:

  • Heated couplers are fitted to our new trains. These prevent carriage couplers from freezing so that train carriages can be easily connected or disconnected to help ensure that they are not late into service at the beginning of the day.
  • A special ‘snow brake’ mode, on our new trains, which clears ice and snow build-up on the trains’ brakes by putting heat into the brakes, coming on one after the other down the train in a domino effect on one set of wheels after the other.
  • Improved electronics systems (on the entire Stadler fleet) which help the train’s pantograph (which connects to the overhead line to power the train) to regulate the electricity current, preventing signalling problems.
  • Our Alstom Class 720s electric commuter trains are fitted with heated horns
  • Our new trains also feature improved heating systems to keep passengers warm onboard.
  • If snow is forecast, a type of anti-freeze called ‘Pre-Frost’ is applied to the underside of trains to stop snow and ice build-up and then when snow comes another type called ‘Kill-Frost’ is applied as a further deterrent.

For our older Class 321 and 317 trains, one of the main problems is the risk of snow getting into the train horn, preventing it from working. If this happens, the train cannot run as the horn is essential for the safe running of the railway.

To prevent this, we have modified the train horns – such as fitting them with special ‘snow socks’ and horn covers to try to reduce the likelihood of them getting blocked by snow.

In the past, another issue has been melted snow and ice getting into the old trains’ electric traction motors, causing them to break down.

To prevent this, engineers fit the trains with a special gauze to prevent meltwater getting in and are making sure that all the traction motors on the old trains are in good condition.

Train drivers are reminded every winter about the procedures they need to follow to ensure services keep running smoothly and they receive additional training and up to date information about the expected conditions.

How might snow affect train services?

Just as traffic on roads has to run slower in extreme weather conditions, so does the railway which can lead to cancellations to prevent trains becoming displaced or congestion occurring.

Rural routes can be particularly affected as it’s difficult to keep them clear of snow. On busier routes, the volume of traffic prevents the snow from settling too deep, like on roads, but on rural routes the traffic isn’t frequent enough.

When a train has to slow down as it approaches a station or set of points (which allow trains to change between tracks), this can cause snow to compact on the rails and turn into solid ice. This can clog up the points and stop them from working.

Steel rails can freeze together if they become too cold. When this happens, signals stay red and trains can’t move.

Wind is another problem. If it causes snow drifts deeper than 30cm, or about a foot, trains can’t run safely unless they’re fitted with snow ploughs.

At stations

You’ll see posters and hear announcements at our stations reminding you to take care in icy conditions and our station staff will clear walkways and car parks and apply grit to prevent slipping.

Planning ahead

Whilst we will be doing everything we can to keep services running, our performance teams have drawn up contingency plans for how Greater Anglia will continue to operate in snowy conditions and emergency timetables have been prepared for use in case of very severe weather.

Network Rail has also made preparations for keeping the tracks operational where possible by deploying teams to check that point heaters (which defrost the track’s points) are in working order, organising ‘icicle patrols’ and special teams who are located at critical junctions ready to clear the points of snow as required.

If required, they will also organise snow ploughs and use special trains known as ‘Ice Maidens’ which operate before the start of the train service to clear some lines and make them passable for passenger trains.

If bad weather is forecast, Network Rail and Greater Anglia communicate via ‘Emergency Weather Action Teams’ conference calls to decide what action to take and whether any amendments are required to train services.

Sometimes trains will have to run more slowly through snow and ice, just as cars have to slow down on icy roads. This means we may have to cancel some services, as slower speeds mean that we cannot maintain the whole timetable, as trains can become displaced or congestion occurs.

Helping you on your journey

Any amended timetables are confirmed by 1600 the day before the forecasted weather is due to arrive and communicated to customers via the Greater Anglia website, Twitter and at stations, etc. so please make sure you check before you travel.

We are very sorry if disruption occurs while you are travelling. On train and station staff and our Customer Actions Teams in their bright pink vests will be on hand to keep you updated with information and get you on your way as quickly as possible.

We will be doing everything we can to keep services running. Our performance teams have drawn up contingency plans for how we will continue to operate in snowy conditions and emergency timetables have been prepared for use in case of very severe weather.

If snow is forecast, please check or on Twitter @greateranglia before you travel to check how services are running