Fallen leaves halt trains for second year

THOUSANDS of rail commuters suffered delays yesterday when fallen leaves brought trains to a halt across the south of England, despite British Rail claims that new anti-leaf measures were in place.

Delays of up to 30 minutes were caused by the annual problem of foliage preventing trains from braking and affecting their ability to grip rails and to move out of stations.

Network SouthEast, the area worst affected, said last night that its new measures had reduced the problem but it warned that leaves were likely to cause delays until they had all been shed by trackside trees.

'This is not a problem unique to us,' Andrew Hibberd, a Network SouthEast spokesman, said. 'Most of Western Europe, North America and Canada suffer from falling leaves. No one has yet come up with an ideal solution.'

Trains are adversely affected when large leaves fall from trees in wet weather, gripping tracks and forming a slippery paste as they are compressed by passing locomotives. Eventually, drivers have difficulty braking effectively and moving out of stations because of the mulch created.

Last week, Network SouthEast suggested that conditions would be much improved this autumn thanks to Sandite, a paste impregnated with sand for electrified tracks, and iron filings for non- electrified sections of line, which breaks down the mulch, giving trains a better grip.

Twenty-seven trains have been treating the network's 4,500 miles of track with Sandite, but they can cover only 500 miles each night. 'If we knew which 500 miles were going to be worst affected, we could stamp on the problem,' Mr Hibberd said. 'Unfortunately, trees don't carry signs saying: 'I am going to shed my leaves.' '

British Rail and Network SouthEast have been experimenting unsuccessfully with a number of measures imported from abroad, including the 'Swedish scrubber' - rotating metal brushes intended to sweep leaves from tracks. Unfortunately, trains using it must move very slowly.

The Austrian 'snake grinder' attracted interest briefly, but its hydraulically controlled abrasive blocks slung between wheels have also failed to solve the problem. Other remedies include high-pressure water jets and deflector skirts.

Commuters in sections worst affected yesterday, between Fareham and Swanwick in Hampshire, Swanwick and Hamble in Hampshire, Whitchurch (Hampshire) and Warminster in Wiltshire, areas around Edenbridge, Kent, and Meopham and Longfield in Kent, could take small comfort from the fact that Danish, Swiss, French and German railways have all reported leaf problems and have been liaising with British Rail.

In the meantime, it is likely that BR and Network SouthEast will resort to old measures to solve the problem. In the days of steam, trees were cut back to avoid the risk of fire; now they are being cut back heavily again but, with 75,000 acres of trackside vegetation to go, it is unlikely commuters will feel the benefit this autumn.

(Photograph omitted)