Greater Anglia and Network Rail work together to tackle ‘leaves on the line’

Monday, 9 October 2017

Greater Anglia and Network Rail are taking action and investing in new equipment in an effort to minimise disruption to rail passengers caused by slippery rails during the Autumn.

After a successful trial last year, the completion of a £500K project to fit special anti-slip ‘Wheel Slide Protection’ (WSP) – like ABS in cars - to Greater Anglia’s Class 156 trains will be the biggest weapon in the rail companies’ annual fight against ‘leaves on the line’ and should result in improved performance and more reliable services this Autumn.

This is the first time such a system has been designed for Class 156 trains, which operate on rural services in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Technology installed on the train judges whether its wheels are slowing evenly when the train brakes. When the wheels do not brake evenly this can cause damage known as a ‘wheel flat’, requiring the train to be removed from service until the wheel is repaired on a lathe.

Greater Anglia hopes that by installing WSP on its Class 156 trains (it is already installed on other types of train in its fleet), the number of rural services cancelled and trains removed from service due to wheel flats will be drastically reduced.

The prototype Class 156 has been in operation since October 2016, through Autumn and adverse weather – including on the Marks Tey – Sudbury line where in 2015 many services were cancelled due to wheel flats caused by rails made slippery by fallen leaves.

Six months later, the train’s wheels were all still in good condition. None of its wheels needed to visit the wheel lathe, whereas other Class 156 trains received treatment from the wheel lathe two or three times during the same period.

Greater Anglia is also investing in an upgrade to the automatic sanding equipment on its Class 321 fleet which operates throughout Essex. The automatic sanders deposit a layer of a sticky sand-like substance on to the rail which helps the train wheel to grip and also helps clean contamination from the rails at the same time.

Other plans and preparations for Autumn include additional track-cleaning equipment, vegetation clearance and targeting known problem areas, to try to keep delays and disruption to a minimum. Some timetables will also be changed so that services can run smoothly during the autumn and winter months.

Autumn is traditionally a difficult time for the railways, bringing wet weather and falling leaves which can make the rails slippery. Falling leaves create mulch that sticks to the track and gets compressed and hardened by train wheels into a Teflon-like layer. This makes the track as slippery as black ice, so train wheels lose grip and in some cases become damaged. The mulch can also cause the electrical circuits on the tracks to fail, which can also cause delays.

A number of measures have been put in place by Network Rail to combat the problem of slippery rails, with six specialist trains in circulation to clean the tracks and a programme of targeted vegetation removal.

Network Rail has invested in a specially-adapted Land Rover, known as a Sand Rover, which will clean and treat the track between Marks Tey and Sudbury, which specialist trains cannot reach. The ‘Sand Rover’ can be driven onto the railway where rail wheels are then lowered onto the rail, turning it into a rail vehicle.

Greater Anglia has also continues to invest in a mobile wheel lathe at its Crown Depot in Norwich, in addition to the one at Ilford Depot, to fix some of the train wheels damaged as a result of slippery rails without the need to send trains away to other locations.

As a result any damaged trains will be out of service for a shorter period, resulting in less disruption for passengers. Additional staff have been trained in the use the of the lathe.

Other measures that have been put in place include:

  • Trains for London depart five minutes earlier than usual during the morning peak from 9th October until 8th December to help maintain arrival times into London.
  • Trains on the regional routes in Norfolk and Suffolk will undergo modifications to improve their automatic sanders (that deposit sand onto the rail when the brakes are applied), to prevent the train wheels slipping.
  • All trains have been fitted with a monitoring system that reports when and where a train experiences slipping. The data will be used by Network Rail engineers to find and clean the affected track as quickly as possible.
  • Network Rail will continue to clear lineside vegetation, especially at locations where vegetation might compromise signals and level crossings and in other known problematic areas.
  • Network Rail will run six rail head treatment trains each day and night during the autumn season, which clean the rails and apply a layer of sand-like substance to the rail to improve grip. Engineers will visit areas that can’t be accessed by the rail head treatment train.
  • Additional slots have also been booked at other wheel lathe locations to fix trains quickly if a number of trains were to suffer wheel damage, despite the additional preventative measures

Greater Anglia’s Managing Director, Jamie Burles, commented, “We are acutely aware of the frustration and inconvenience felt by our passengers when things go wrong, so we are pleased to be taking action in partnership with Network Rail, making additional preparations to protect train services during what is traditionally a difficult period on the railway. We will be doing all we can, as ever, to make lives a little easier for our passengers, getting them from a to b reliably, on time and in comfort.”

Maliha Duymaz, Network Rail’s route managing director for Anglia, said: “We have been working together with Greater Anglia on a package of works that aims to keep train services running as smoothly as possible this autumn and winter. We understand the inconvenience caused when problems occur, and our engineers will be doing everything they can to keep passengers moving.”