[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 20 October, 2003, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Lasers tackle leaves on the line
Removing problems caused by leaves on the line
A workman removes the mulch with a hand sander
Lasers may be used to help get commuters to work on time, if new technology to clear leaves from the track proves effective.

Network Rail has invested 1.6m in laser research, kitting out two specially adapted trains with lasers to blast leafy mulch off the tracks.

The problem of leaves on the line is a 50m-a-year headache for the rail industry, causing black ice conditions on the rails resulting in delays.

The leaves, when crushed, form a hard coating that causes train wheels to slip and slide.

The mulch can also, in extreme cases, insulate the electric currents passing through the rail which tells signallers where trains are, causing an effect called "ghosting", where trains can disappear from display panels.

Although we cannot control the elements, we are constantly striving to find new ways of addressing the leaf-fall problem
Robin Gisby
Network Rail

Robin Gisby, director for the southern area, said the two new trains were being tested along with other technology at the company's disposal.

"If they work, then we might have those two and some more next year," he said.

"Hot spot" areas

Mr Gisby said about 50 might eventually be needed to provide national coverage if they were approved for use.

A train sprays the line to clear it of leaves
A train similar to this will be fitted with lasers to clear the track

They offer advantages over existing methods of clearing the tracks using high-pressure water jets and a sand-based gel called sandite.

He said: "The lasers are completely non-intrusive and remember you are throwing water and sand around near the points in some cases."

The company is operating its biggest ever "treatment fleet" this year - 62 specially adapted trains which apply sandite and the water jets, and 94 teams who walk the line in "hot spot" areas to deal with the problem.


A mature line side tree has 10,000 to 50,000 leaves
Thousands of tonnes of leaves fall onto railway lines each year
There are 21,000 miles of track to keep clear
The cost of line side vegetation management (pruning and felling) of trees is between 20,000 and 50,000 per mile

"Although we cannot control the elements, we are constantly striving to find new ways of addressing the leaf-fall problem and this year sees a more focused effort than ever before to help to reduce the problems that autumn brings for operating a punctual and reliable railway."

Malcolm Higgins, whose company LaserThor has developed the new technology, had the idea for the new development four years ago while driving down the motorway listening to media reports about the problem.

"I thought there must be something that could be done," he said. The company would be testing the trains with the lasers at 40mph this year - a prototype was tested at 20 mph last year.

"I've had a lot of interest from France, Canada and America so they may get them first," he added.

Leaf timetable for trains
14 Oct 03  |  Hereford/Worcs

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific