NR needs to be more sensitive but leaves must be kept off the line

Network Rail has brought out the fierce Amazonian tribesman in many of us. From Whitstable to the Wirral, the company responsible for the nation’s railway infrastructure has been accused of chopping down trees in a cavalier fashion with no regard for the environment. The RSPB yesterday claimed that Network Rail’s tree-cutting policy menaces 1.5 million birds’ nests found in the greenery of rail embankments.

There is no doubt that, as admitted by Robin Gisby, Network Rail’s managing director of operations, the company has occasionally transgressed by cutting more than necessary. For example, the line next to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in North London is now in full view of the crowds, whereas previously it was shielded by tangled foliage that muffled the noise from the trains and provided a habitat for wildlife quite far from the tracks.

However, the idea that Network Rail is endangering a substantial proportion of Britain’s bird life is a tale straight out of Thomas the Tank Engine. The RSPB’s “conservative estimate” would suggest that there are 150 nests alongside every mile of Britain’s railway lines and that Network Rail has its eyes on all of them.

They may sound like a music hall joke, but “leaves on the line” are a serious issue. When the leaves are squashed by successive sets of wheels, they form a ghastly black mulch that in Network Rail-speak “reduces adhesion” and in plain English causes trains to slide along the track, possibly through red signals. A couple of years ago, a Southeastern service slid for more than two miles, leaving the driver helpless to do anything.

But it’s not only leaves on the line. Trees can affect the sighting of signals and level crossings, encroach on the overhead line and, less visibly, suck the moisture out of neighbouring land, putting at risk nearby structures such as bridges and viaducts. Trees, too, can fall on the track.

The railways can’t win. Chop down too many trees, and they are vandals. Hold back, and those old “leaves on the line” headlines come out again. Of course Network Rail makes mistakes, but the £25 million it spends annually on chopping back vegetation is an essential investment.

There is, too, the odd compensation of not having trees obscuring the view of the railway. As I walked my 18-month-old grandson, Alfie, round the outside of the Emirates the other day, he looked up at the train thundering through and learnt the word “choochoo”, which I hope will be the start of a lifelong love of trains.

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