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.

  • Having been away from the UK from 1995-2003 I was astonished by just how much the lineside had been allowed to become overgrown. Bushes growing by the line in the 1990’s had now become maturing trees and in my home town the railway embankment was completely obscured by foliage. Buddleia is everywhere particicularly in the tracks at Peterborough yard. Railtrack had allowed everything to grow and much of the growth is neglect of the lineside. Embankments need stabilisation and not undermining from large tree roots. The hacking back of the trees around my local area took place in the Autumn/Winter and as a result the lineside looks much tidier. Todays aggressive tree cutting is necessary for safe operation and only looks severe due to years of inaction.

  • fledermaus

    Actually, all NR need to do is publish old (before 1968, to be precise) pictures of what the rail solums looked like.
    And to say: “We are merely restoring the railway environment to its’ former state”

  • MikeB

    Would these objectors mind having large overgrown trees right alongside their houses, with the roots potentially damaging the foundations? I doubt it very much. Also, there is rarely any outcry when the Highways Agency or local authorities have to remove trees which cause sighting problems for road users. Finally, a large number of trees were removed from alongside the West Highland Line, purely and simply to allow rail passengers to have clear views of the magnificent scenery. Where were the objectors?

  • Amusungu

    After 50 years of no maintenance what do you expect? Of course maintenance is urgently needed. But during this time tree roots have grown into the embankment altering the internal make-up by adding a mesh of roots which helps to hold the soil in the slope together. Remove that root mesh and the stabilising effects of the root system is also removed.  There is a large body of information out there that landslides are triggered by deforestation. Network Rail themselves have already triggered at least one landslip in Kemble – see RAIB accident report 25/2008. They will not want any more by carrying out work without first considering all the consequences.

  • A.L.S.

    The trees in the Wirral are evergreen. There is no leaf drop there!


  • RapidAssistant

    Nowhere probably because most of the trees along the route of the WHL are artificial forest made up of sitka spruce and Douglas Fir trees – not even indigenous to the British Isles – they are Alaskan, and are a bone of contention among naturalists who don’t want them either!

  • Thomas Carr

    Good article. Ideally trees should also be regarded as a crop to be cut while the wood is still fit for economic use. 
    In the absence of Tree Preservation Orders Network Rail should be encouraged to run their own estate management policy as common sense and necessity dictate.

  • A.L.S.

    Your incisive article has got me thinking.

    Looking out from my rail carriage window, I have come to realise that the majority of tree and leaf problems do not come from trees on Network Rail land but just across the fence on land owned, and managed(?) by adjacent land owners.

    What influence does Network Rail have to required to keep these landowners and their vegetation under control?

    Is this not a greater threat to rail safety?

    Just as the public, and our elected representatives, have no power to influence a company that we are are largely financing. Network Rail has no power to act when a real threat to rail safety arises.