Catching the fall: Network Rail gearing up to ready the railway for Autumn: One of 19 trains known as Windhoff Multipurpose Vehicles (MPVs) Network Rail's Southern region uses to keep the railway free from leaves, snow & ice

Wednesday 4 Oct 2023

Catching the fall: Network Rail gearing up to ready the railway for Autumn

Region & Route:
| Southern: Wessex
  • Leaves on the line are no joke – Autumn is the railway’s most challenging season
  • Our fleet of 25 specialist leaf-busting trains are working round-the-clock to jet wash the rails and clear leaves from the line to keep passengers moving
  • This year, the fleet is expected to travel the equivalent of 12 times around the Earth

Across Network Rail’s Southern region – which covers the railway in the south of England from Weymouth to Brighton to Dover – a fleet of ‘leaf-busting’ trains will be in action to keep the railway leaf free and running reliably this Autumn.

19 trains known as Windhoff Multipurpose Vehicles (MPVs) and 6 trains called RHTTs (rail head treatment trains) will operate from the region’s seasonal delivery depots in Effingham, Horsham and Tonbridge.

The specialist trains are equipped with high pressure water jets to blast leaves off the lines and where necessary apply a sand-like gel to help trains grip the rail better.

Operating until mid-December, they will treat a total of 318,000 miles of track – roughly 12 times around the planet – working tirelessly to rid the railway of leaves, snow and ice.

The railway’s black ice

There are millions of trees on or next to the railway and every autumn thousands of tonnes of leaves fall onto the tracks.

The combination of wet weather and passing trains compresses the leaves into a hard slippery layer on the rails. This is the railway’s equivalent of black ice on the roads. Slippery rails make it harder for trains to accelerate and brake effectively, so drivers have to move out of stations more slowly and brake much earlier to stop in time. The build-up of leaves can also create a barrier between the train wheels and the electrical parts of the track that let signallers know where the trains are.

Tackling ice and snow

With climate change blurring the traditional weather conditions expected in each season, Network Rail is also preparing to simultaneously tackle ice and colder weather.

Across much of the railway in the south of England, trains are powered by the conductor rail (also known as the third rail) which can get covered in ice and snow, stopping power reaching trains.

To prevent this from happening MPVs and snow and ice treatment trains (SITT) both scrape ice off the conductor rail head (the top of the conductor rail) and spray the rails with anti-icer.

Across Network Rail’s Wessex route – which serves the towns and communities in part or all of the counties of Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire – digital technology is also being used to complement the efforts of the specialist trains.

Drones are being deployed to aerially inspect the railway and reduce the need for line closures while high-definition video cameras mounted onto the front of trains – known as Automated Intelligent Video Review (AIVR) – capture high-definition images and video to help maintenance teams identify any areas of track where the railhead has been contaminated by leaves or ice, so we can trigger treatment in areas that need extra attention

Autumn timetables

In areas with very heavy leaf-fall some train operators publish special autumn timetables with revised journey timings, including South Western Railway (SWR) which operates across Network Rail’s Wessex route. These timetables allow extra time for train drivers to drive more cautiously due to the slippery conditions caused by leaf fall, ice and snow, so that they can get passengers to where they need to go safely and reliably.

Ben Hall, Network Rail’s Wessex route operations and performance manager, said: “Autumn is a really challenging time for the railway, owing largely to the significant amount of leaf fall and wet weather.

“Our teams will be working tirelessly using our 25-strong fleet of specialist trains to treat a total of 318,000 miles of track across the Southern region – roughly 12 times around the planet – to help keep the tracks leaf and ice free so passenger and freight services are able to continue running safely and reliably this Autumn.”

Stuart Meek, Chief Operating Officer at South Western Railway, said: “We are working closely with our colleagues at Network Rail to ensure that we are well prepared for the challenging autumn and winter seasons ahead, keeping our colleagues and customers moving safely.

“We would also like to remind customers that from Sunday 8 October we will operate our autumn timetable, in which a small number of our services will depart slightly earlier than usual in response to the tricky conditions that come from the combination of wet weather and falling leaves.”

Contact information

Passengers / community members
Network Rail national helpline
03457 11 41 41

Latest travel advice
Please visit National Rail Enquiries

Rob Breckon
Senior Communications Manager - Southern
Network Rail
07395 390759

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