Leaves on the track this Autumn

Last updated: Friday, 4 August 2023

The ScotRail Alliance will invest millions of pounds to keep people moving during autumn, as we undertake a major push to deal with the very real safety risks caused by leaves on the line.

“We apologise for the delay to your journey. This is caused by leaves on the line.”

It’s the announcement some customers both dread and mock in equal measure.

“That’s just one of the daft excuses they use”, say many people.

And it’s understandable that people are so sceptical. After all, how much damage can a few leaves cause?

You’d be surprised.

The problem

Hundreds of trees line the railway in Scotland. And every autumn tonnes of leaves fall on the tracks.

The leaves are gradually broken down by the trains running up and down the tracks. The debris is crushed into a thick, hard coating which sticks to both the tracks and the wheels of the train.

This leads to a lack of grip between the train and the track, similar to the way ice makes it difficult for car tyres to grip on the road in winter.

The problem is much worse during foggy or dewy mornings, when the moisture level is even higher.

In some cases excessive sliding and spinning can damage the wheels to the extent that trains have to be taken out of service while they’re repaired on our wheel lathes.

Leaves falling from trees also interferes with the signalling system.

This can be dangerous.

When a train brakes, it can skid. If the train doesn’t slow down quickly enough, it can skid past its stopping point.

That puts customers and staff in danger, and can lead to accidents.

We don’t want our trains to be slipping and sliding their way through the stations at any time, so we ask our drivers to take extra time and care during the leaf fall period.

It takes much longer than usual to get up to full speed. Drivers must allow a much longer distance to start braking as they approach stations – rather like driving a car on icy roads.

This means that when there are leaves on the line services may be slower than normal and can result in disruption to customers.

What we’re doing to keep people safe

Everything we do is focused on keeping staff and customers safe, and keeping Scotland’s railway moving.

Led by Network Rail, from the middle of October our autumn safety campaign will include:

  • £2.6million invested in clearing the tracks.
  • 11 leaf fall teams, totalling 30 staff based in Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Tayside, the Borders and Fife.
  • A fleet of seven specialist trains designed to clear leaf debris and spray lines with a glue-like coating to help train wheels grip the tracks.
  • Up to 7,200 staff hours dedicated to clearing the line.
  • Machines covering an average of 1,500 miles a day.
  • A green/amber/red warning system on Twitter each day, advising customers of any expected disruptions because of weather.

The next time you hear that your train has been delayed by leaves on the line, remember that it’s a real thing that puts safety at risk - no matter how daft you think it sounds.