Northern launches technology that blasts leaves from train tracks

Northern launches technology to blast leaves from railway tracks.

Fallen leaves on railway tracks causing significant disruption could be a thing of the past thanks to new technology which could save the rail industry millions of pounds every year.

Northern has partnered with top engineers and experts to trial ‘rail head treatment technology’ this autumn which blasts leaves from the path of their trains.

Fallen leaves can cause significant disruption to the network as they stick to damp rails and passing trains compress them into a smooth, slippery layer, reducing trains’ grip. This can cause delays to services, which lead to disruption for passengers.

The technology – called Water-Trak – is based on the discovery that leaf-coated rails only become slippery if damp, noting that trains will stop safely in heavy rain. Water-Trak simply creates rainy-day conditions on the rail surface by spraying a small amount of water from the train onto the track when a slippery rail is detected. This cleans the rail and makes the conditions better for braking.

Go-pro footage of the technology in action can be viewed here.

Railway lines are currently cleaned using dedicated railhead treatment trains, also known as RHTTs, but there are only a limited number of these trains available, so they can’t treat the whole of the network.

RHTTs are also expensive to run, so they are mainly used to clean high-traffic, intercity lines, which means some rural and branch lines are left untreated, whereas Water-Trak can be fitted to existing passenger services.

Five Northern trains fitted with Water-Trak will be operating this autumn on routes between Liverpool, Wigan and Manchester, as well as between Leeds, Harrogate and York. The trials with Northern are being run thanks to funding from Network Rail’s Performance Innovation Fund.

Rob Cummings, seasonal performance improvement manager at Northern, said: “We’re pleased to be working with Water-Trak to try and provide a better, more reliable service in tricky autumn conditions.

“This is the next stage of this trial that we hope will take us closer to our goal.”

By next autumn, a further 11 trains will have the Water-Trak system fitted.

John Cooke, co-founder at Water-Trak, said: “Slippery rails are a massive problem for the rail industry, and we hope to play a big part in resolving this issue.

“We’re hoping that by working with Northern we can make autumn disruption a thing of the past.”

Northern is the second largest train operator in the UK, with 2,500 services a day to more than 500 stations across the north of England.

If you would like to contact Sarah Walker about this, or any other story, please email