Network Rail is testing laser and plasma technologies to remove fall leaves from train tracks and minimize passenger delays. During October, Network Rail carried out extensive testing using its multi-purpose vehicles on the East Lancashire Railway. Railway Supply magazine writes about this, referring to the Global Railway Review.

autumn leaves removal
Picture: Network Rail

In autumn, train wheels press leaves against the rails and form a black coating similar to Teflon that makes it difficult for trains to brake or accelerate. Engineers tested how effective trains equipped with a laser beam (LaserTrain) and plasma jet (PlasmaTrack) are at cleaning rails compared to the current method using high-pressure water systems.

To clear leaves from the rails, the LaserTrain uses three powerful beams per rail. When the laser beam hits the rail head, the contaminant instantly evaporates without heating the rail itself. PlasmaTrack uses direct current (DC) plasma technology that uses heat and active electrons to destroy contaminants. A high-energy electrical plasma jet breaks the layer of leaves and burns out the remains.

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“Leaves on the line are often seen as a joke on the railway but they can cause serious problems and we’re always looking at new ways to tackle this age-old problem,” Suhayb Manzoor, Project Engineer for Network Rail, said. “It’s also not unique to Britain, with railways all over the world having issues when trees shed their leaves. For that reason, it’s exciting to be putting some of the newest technology out there to the test with the hope that one day it could help Network Rail keep passengers and freight moving safely at this operationally challenging time of year.”

The UK’s 20,000-mile rail network is currently being cleared out by a fleet of high-pressure water trains in the fall. Year after year,
between October and December, these trains cover 1 million miles (or the same as going to the moon and back twice) and use about 200 million liters of water.

New technologies have the potential to reduce the need for this water and the fuel needed to transport it around the country, benefiting both the environment and taxpayers. If testing finds that lasers or plasmas can effectively clean rails, further development will be needed to see if they can handle the complexities of the live rail network. Further research will also be required to explore the business case for introducing the new technology.

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