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What does ‘leaves on the line’ mean?

‘Leaves on the line’ can feel like the most ‘British’ excuse there is for trains not running to time. After all, why would leaves cause your train to be late? Here’s our handy guide to what those pesky leaves can do to trains and what rail operators do to try and minimise delays.

What does ‘leaves on the line’ mean?

In part, it’s exactly what it sounds like! In the Autumn, when trees start to shed their leaves, they end up everywhere. One of those places is all over the railway.

While leaves alone won’t do any harm, the problem starts when trains run over them repeatedly and the ground becomes damp. Wet weather combined with a build-up of leaves turns them into a sort of slippery and mushy substance, which causes train wheels to skid. Think of it like driving on black ice!

Why do leaves on the line cause delays?

If a train is trying to speed up on a section covered in leaves, this can cause the wheels to skid. This is known as ‘wheelslip’. When this happens, it can’t gain any power or traction, so it can’t gain any speed. This means that trains will take longer to get where they need to go, as drivers need to apply power more gradually to avoid wheelslip.

Similarly, if a train is trying to brake, the wheels will slide again, so it’s unable to slow down quickly. To counter this, drivers will often slow down earlier and more gradually to avoid wheelslip and ensure a smoother ride for passengers.

What does the railway do about leaves on the line?

During the Autumn, you might see some different-looking trains out on the network. They’ll be rather short and have a locomotive on either end of some blue-coloured equipment. These are called ‘Railhead Treatment Trains’ and they use a high-powered water jet to wash away leaf mulch from the tracks.

On areas of the network where leaves on the line are known to cause a particular problem, these trains will often run overnight to ensure that the line is clean for the first trains in the morning.

Will train times change because of leaves on the line?

Some rail companies will introduce a leaf fall timetable, which adds a few extra minutes or removes some stops in order to give trains more time to run safely.

You can find more information on the National Rail website, but here are the currently announced changes for 2022 in a nutshell:

Rail Operator Planned Changes
Chiltern Railways From 3 October:

Trains running towards London on the Aylesbury Vale Parkway to London Marylebone via Amersham route may depart up to three minutes earlier. Other Chiltern services may arrive at destinations up to three minutes later.

Merseyrail From 3 October:

Trains running towards Liverpool from Chester, Ellesmere Port and Southport may leave stations up to three minutes earlier, but will arrive in Liverpool City Centre at their usual time.

Trains running from Liverpool to Chester, Ellesmere Port and Southport will depart at their usual time from Liverpool City Centre, but will arrive at subsequent stations up to three minutes later.

Northern From 3 October:

The following routes will see an amended timetable:

  • Sunderland/Newcastle to Hexham/Carlisle

From 10 October:

The following routes will also see an amended timetable:

  • Manchester Victoria to Blackburn/Clitheroe
  • Manchester Piccadilly to Hazel Grove/Buxton
  • Manchester Piccadilly to Sheffield (stopping service)

If your train is delayed as a result of leaves on the line, you may be entitled to compensation.