Stopping ice in its tracks

As it is the time of year when snow and cold weather can play havoc with transport systems, we take a look at some initiatives rail operators can take to keep trains moving

More than 16,000 metres of specialist heating strips have been installed onto the third rail power system at 42 locations across southeast England as part of a county-wide trial to improve reliability of train services during harsh winter weather conditions.

Ice forming on the conductor rail, which is used to provide electricity to power the trains, is one of the biggest causes of disruption in the region during winter weather. A layer of ice on the top of the rail prevents or disrupts power being drawn by the train often resulting in the train being stranded.

Pioneering technology

Dave Ward, Network Rail’s route director for Kent, said: “We are pioneering this new technology in Britain to further improve the reliability of train services during harsh winter weather conditions. We have analysed weather patterns over the last ten years to identify the most vulnerable areas, and it is these places we are concentrating the trial of the heating strips.

“Last winter was the most severe for 30 years. Although the railway coped relatively well compared to other forms of transport, we have used the experience to try and make the railway more robust so we can deliver a better and more reliable for passengers.”

Online updates

To complement this initiative, train operator, Southeastern, has launched on its website a new online table showing at-a-glance how train services on all 12 routes are operating at any given moment. The tool shows either ‘good service’, ‘minor disruption’ or ‘major disruption’ and sits alongside an interactive map. Southeastern has also published a contingency timetable to provide passengers with an idea of what services could look like on the rare occasions it needs to be implemented. Other upgrades have also been made to the website and all drivers and conductors have been issued with Blackberrys to help improve information to passengers.

Network Rail has also been working with graduates and research staff teams at the University of Birmingham to assess the benefit of anti-icing and de-icing products. The findings will feed into other work Network Rail is doing to combat the problems caused by extreme weather.

The university has a multi-disciplinary centre for railway research and education which offers offer both undergraduates and masters students practical experience of working collaboratively with industry during their studies. As part of their final year project, or a summer placement, students carried out tests which involved building a cold room and running a shoe along a circular rail spinning at up to 50mph to simulate real conditions. New anti-ice fluids and sleet brushes have been tested.

Weather experts
Network Rail has also worked with specialist weather experts with the aim of getting more accurate forecasts and conditions on the rails. Similar projects are planned for other parts of the railway in the south east which use the third rail power system, particularly in East and West Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire.

The new initiatives will complement Network Rail established winter contingency plans during harsh weather conditions, which will continue to be delivered.  When required, maintenance teams will be working night and day to check hundreds of points at key junctions to prevent equipment from freezing. A fleet of specialist anti-icing trains will also operate across the affected areas, spraying heated anti-freeze onto the rails.

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