Train operators lengthen journey times to allow for leaves on lines

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The Independent Online

Train companies operating Britain's busiest commuter routes have given up on battling the annual problem of leaves on the line.

Despite the efforts of the infrastructure organisation Network Rail, operators are lengthening journey times during the autumn in an attempt to cope.

Key commuter routes into London run by South West Trains, Connex, South Central Trains, Silverlink, West Anglia Great Northern and Chiltern are the subject of new "leaf-fall" timetables.

Cynthia Hay co-ordinator of the pressure group Capital Transport, said commuters had been told for years that the industry was searching for an answer to the problem. "It cannot be beyond the wit of human kind to deal with this. Other countries don't seem to have this problem. Lengthening journey times for commuters cannot be the only solution."

A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies said operators were doing their best. "People like to have a pop at operators over this, but it is a serious issue. When it rains hard and leaves are falling it creates a hard mulch on the rail which is very difficult to remove.

"Just as motorists leave earlier when there is heavy rain or black ice on the road, some train operators are allowing longer journey times on routes which they know are affected by leaf-fall. Research shows that what passengers want is certainty. If they know they are going to arrive three to five minutes later than normal, they can plan for it."

It is estimated that a mature tree can shed between 10,000 and 50,000 leaves in the autumn. Adrian Shooter, the chairman of Chiltern Railways and the industry's "adhesion working group", said drivers encountered problems accelerating and braking when there was leaf mulch on the rails. New timetables would make operations safer and more reliable.

He said the state-backed Network Rail was "working so much harder" to deal with the problem than Railtrack, its private sector predecessor.

A spokesman for Network Rail said the company had been engaged in a major exercise to clear trees from the line near trouble spots, but there was no ultimate cure for leaves on the line. "All we can do is try to mitigate the effects. Leaves fall every autumn and we try to reduce the delays caused. A special timetable is the sensible solution in some areas. We are as prepared as we can be."

The spokesman said Network Rail was conducting trials in southern England in the next few weeks of £1.5m worth of laser equipment which would "zap" the leaf mould on the rails.

Asked whether the situation was getting better, the spokesman said the company had been "at the mercy of nature".

Last October, a major storm caused a huge amount of leaf-fall which led to considerable delays over the following three days, making the situation worse than the previous year.

Commuters on the troubled Connex network, which operates between London and Kent, suffered a more substantial arboreal problem yesterday when high winds blew a tree on to one of the main lines into London, causing hours of delays for thousands of passengers.