Conservation groups believe Railtrack is running a national programme of tree clearance to try to rid itself once and for all of the problem that dogged its publicly-owned predecessor, British Rail, and along with that other notorious reason for train delays and cancellations - the "wrong kind of snow" - became a national joke.
Since Railtrack began operating two years ago, reports have accumulated of contractors' gangs moving in and clear-felling to create a tree-free swath 10 metres wide on both sides of the track. The latest example is at Sydenham Hill in south London, where the London Wildlife Trust has accused Railtrack of "wanton destructiveness" after contractors, called Tree Care We Care, removed trees up to 10 metres from the track in a woodland conservation area.
Other clearances have taken place in Farnborough in Hampshire, Shropshire, Brighton, Kingston and Surrey. At Farnborough, plans to fell 700 mature trees, creating a cordon sanitaire of eight metres on both sides, destroying habitat used by foxes and deer, provoked uproar.
Protesters acknowledge that some trees have to go but argue that the felling is as much about convenience and image as safety. The Urban Wildlife Partnership, a coalition of about 100 conservation groups, has called on Railtrack to consult local people and claims that the privatised company is gauging public reaction to tree-felling in advance of a new national policy to be put to the Railtrack board in July.
Railtrack says it is still observing the guidelines inherited from British Rail. However, a spokeswoman said that all the alternatives to tree-felling had been tried and found wanting.
"We have nothing against trees but some leaves form a coating on the line which is the equivalent of driving on black ice," she said. "We have to make safety a priority."Reuse content