The Leaf Police

Leaves on the line - the words commuters dread. But they can also be disastrous. Julia Stuart spent a night with the gangs who battle the green menace
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The Independent Online

It's just after 1am at Stoke Newington railway station, north London. Passenger trains have long stopped running and the only movement comes from an empty crisp packet scuffing along the pavement. Suddenly two hefty men armed to the teeth spring out of a white van and make their way down the steps to the platform. Their target is the humble leaf, more specifically those crushed on to the tracks. Their arsenal is a solution of orange extract, a steel brush and a tub of sand. Each has recently consumed a kebab and they mean business.

It's just after 1am at Stoke Newington railway station, north London. Passenger trains have long stopped running and the only movement comes from an empty crisp packet scuffing along the pavement. Suddenly two hefty men armed to the teeth spring out of a white van and make their way down the steps to the platform. Their target is the humble leaf, more specifically those crushed on to the tracks. Their arsenal is a solution of orange extract, a steel brush and a tub of sand. Each has recently consumed a kebab and they mean business.

Mark Sadler, 52, and Albert Lingard, 53, both from Essex, are one of 79 leaf-busting "gangs'' rounded up by Network Rail in the autumn to tackle leaves on the line, a phenomenon deemed by commuters as the most risible of excuses for train delays. For the past seven weeks, the pair, who are responsible for 200 miles of track from Bethnal Green, east London to King's Lynn, Norfolk, have been working six days a week from 6pm to 6am scrubbing off the leaves.

"We thought before the season started that we would be able to cope. We have, but only just," Mr Sadler admits. "There have been times when we've had an hour-and-a-half's drive before starting work, worked all night and then had an hour-and-a-half drive back."

It appears that passengers have been cursed with the wrong type of autumn. By this time last year, storms had brought down the majority of leaves in about 10 days, so the agony was over more quickly. But this season's absence of high winds or cold snaps means that leaves have been hanging on for grim life. Not only that, but it seems that we are also suffering from the wrong type of leaf this year.

"It's been quite a wet summer so there's plenty of sap which means when the leaves fall on the railway they are rather a bigger problem than they were in previous years because they're big and juicy," says Mr Sadler, a former signalman, whose title is now the more exotic West Anglia route modernisation operations interface manager. During the rest of the year he liaises between engineers and train companies.

While leaves on the line may be a national joke (Mr Sadler's friends think his autumnal duties are hilarious), the effects can be catastrophic. When a train passes over leaves it virtually bakes them onto the line, leaving a black Teflon-type skid pad. A train can slide on them for up to the length of a station.

This season they have caused more than 60 trains to overshoot stations. At least seven red warning signals have been passed (the mistake that caused the Paddington rail crash). Some train operators bring in an autumn timetable to add a few minutes to journey lengths to give drivers more time to brake. Earlier this month, the Health and Safety Executive said that Virgin's new tilting trains needed to improve braking in conditions of low adhesion, which includes leaves on the line.

Another problem is that leaf build-up can break the circuit between the rail and the wheels, which means signallers momentarily lose sight of them on the system. Then, of course, there are the delays. On 27 October 2002 - a black day in the history of leaf fall - gale force winds forced 20 per cent of leaves to drop in a period of 48 hours, resulting in a 12-hour suspension of service for a number of networks.

This season, the problem has caused more than 320,000 minutes of delays. And it is not just a national vexation. Dutch, German, French and North American rail companies all bury their heads in their hands in despair at the first twitch of a brown leaf.

Dressed in a luminous orange jacket and steel-capped boots after volunteering my services to the nation, I am ready to start scrubbing.

We look down at the task below us. The trouble-spot is cleaned twice a day by one of Network Rail's 60 vehicles which blast rails in problem areas with water at such a pressure it would take your hand off, and lay a coating of sandite, a water-based gel containing sand which helps traction. Gangs are used when the vehicles break down or are unable to get to areas because of engineering work, when the location is too remote or the area is particularly small. On occasions, such as this one, gangs are sent in because the vehicles have been unable to remove the leaves. Curiously, there are only half a dozen trees in sight. "Once the leaves get in the station they can't get out," Mr Sadler says.

During the safety briefing, he stresses the importance of watching where we are treading: "Remember that trains still flush onto the track." He also indicates a telephone to use "if there is an emergency and neither me or Albert are available because we have been incapacitated".

We put on a backpack containing a large vat of "orange cleanse railhead cleaner" - a liquid containing orange extract and various chemicals - which helps to lift the blackened residue.I start pumping the lever in my right hand and aim the jet's nozzle at the track with my left. I make my way up the rails hoping not to step in anything nasty. The solution bubbles as it hits the line and needs 15 minutes to take effect.

Two days earlier, outside the Euston headquarters of Network Rail, which owns and operates Britain's railway infrastructure, crisp brown leaves blow across the forecourt. Inside, Dr Neil Strong, the company arboriculturalist, spreads blown-up photographs on the table like a detective handling scenes of crime pictures.

He passes me one. It's a shot of lines with a pile of leaves between them. But they are not just any leaves. They are Norway maple, part of the Big Six that can bring the rail network to its knees. The others are sycamore, poplar, horse and sweet chestnut, ash and lime. Their crime is that they are too big. "You can get sycamore leaves that are the size of an A4 piece of paper," Dr Strong says.

Leaves on the line have a long history. Steam trains were affected, too, though to a lesser extent because their block brakes cleaned the wheels as they gripped. There were also far fewer leaves - embankments were cut back because of the fire risk from sparks. They grew back with the introduction of electric and diesel engines and now a significant part of the 21,000 miles of railway is tree lined. Each tree has an average of 50,000 leaves. One solution would be for Network Rail to cut down more trees. But not only would environmentalists have a fit, some trees have preservation orders. Others do not belong to Network Rail.

In a office downstairs, Steve Scott, national weather strategy co-ordinator, has just held his daily conference, during which he hands out colour-coded maps to regional weather co-ordinators, which indicate the level of risk of a safety incident or trains being delayed because of poor adhesion. They are based on leaf-fall predictions provided by the Met Office and an environmental consultancy which sends spotters to 15 areas to monitor how many have fallen and how many have not. Network Rail spends £50m a year on the autumn offensive - £10m on vegetation management, £25m on maintaining and running the 60 leaf-busting vehicles, £5m on the leaf gangs and £10m on repairing damage.

Back at Stoke Newington, it's time to get scrubbing. "In the early days they had gas bottles and burners and they wouldn't bring it off," Mr Sadler says. "We've had battery-driven handheld rail scrubbers which lasted about five minutes before the batteries needed changing. Now we have petrol- driven ones. We've made great strides forwards. There are now several companies developing things for us."

Indeed Mr Lingard and Mr Sadler, who usually get about five miles of track done from 1am until 4.30am when the trains start again, are lighter of spirits this season as they have a new piece of kit. The Rotormag, which looks and sounds like a budget lawnmower, is a petrol-driven rotating wire brush that straddles the track and is pushed with both hands.

"It's certainly made a big difference to us," Mr Sadler says. "It's saved us hours this year. But there are one or two foibles that we will feed back. There's quite a lot of vibration with it, which meant that a couple of screws have come out, and it's relatively heavy." It also only does one rail at a time, so that a one-and-a-half mile stretch means six miles of walking as there are two sets of tracks.

Does Mr Sadler enjoy leaf busting? After a considered pause he replies: "It's 10 weeks, I can hack 10 weeks. I shouldn't like to think I was doing it 52 weeks a year."

Mr Lingard, who has been on the railways for 26 years and has been tackling leaves for nine of them, thinks the Rotormag is "magic" though ideally he'd like something to ride on. "All jobs can be boring at one time or another, but I quite enjoy it," says the father-of-six who does the cleaning at home. "When you look at the rail and see it spotless you think you've achieved something."

His job title - mobile operations manager - isn't as good as Mr Sadler's. Out of leaf season, he "looks after the signalman and anything that goes wrong with the track and the trains".

I start pushing the Rotormag up the line, struggling to keep it from falling to one side while not tripping over the sleepers. The difference it makes is amazing. The light attached to the front of it shows a boot-polish black rail. The one behind reveals shiny steel. I trundle up the track feeling heroic. But the vibrations up my arms start me worrying about RSI and I'd rather the public be late for work than do another line.

Instead, I take up one of the handheld petrol-driven rail scrubbers, which Sadler calls a "bastardised strimmer". They are used for parts of the track which are too difficult to reach with the heavy Rotormag and resemble a roller skate with a long handle and an engine. Underneath is a disc, which grinds the leaves off. I have to keep going over the same patch to get it shiny again.

All four lines are now leaf-free and it's time to spread what looks like the contents of a budgie cage on them to provide traction. A plastic tub containing loose sand is strapped onto a "sand pram", which looks like a tiny luggage trolley. I push it up alternate 10-metre sections of the line. It's 4am and the job is done.

Network Rail is pleased with its performance. At this time last year, 21 trains had passed through red signals and 500,000 minutes had been lost in delays because of leaves on the line. Derek Holmes, the head of operation services, says: "I think we're starting to get to the point where we're getting on top of the routine autumnal conditions that made us a bit of a laughing stock for the industry years ago. This year autumn had almost come and gone and nobody has noticed." It hasn't, of course, gone unnoticed by the commuters left on stations gnashing their teeth. However, Peter Lawrence, president of Railfuture, a national rail campaigning body, isn't complaining. "It is something that may never be cured but certainly progress is being made all the time."

The world's solution to leaves on the line may well rest with a British invention. Malcolm Higgins, a former Royal Navy officer, has come up with the idea of using a laser. He paid for research and, in 2000, invited Railtrack, Network Rail's predecessor, to look at the results. "They got very excited to the point that they were on their mobiles as soon as they were outside the laboratory talking to their bosses," says Mr Higgins, 52, from Portsmouth.

Railtrack lent him a train on which to test his theory and he put a drainpipe through the floorboards and shone the beam of a borrowed laser down it onto the track. It worked at one mile per hour. Network Rail has since bought two prototype units which they have been testing on the main line.

"There is a lot of interest from around the world," Mr Higgins said. "We haven't got the worst problem. The only difference is that Railtrack were foolish enough to use the ex- pression "leaves on the line" in a way which obviously the press were going to make fun of."

But in the meantime, Mr Lingard and Mr Sadler will continue to scrape the leaves off. If lasers eventually prove to be the solution, will Mr Sadler be sad to be relieved of his autumnal duties? "No," he says, without hesitation. "Roll on that day."