Space-age laser and plasma train trials zap autumn leaves off the line

Space-age technology using lasers and plasma jets are being trialled as a more sustainable way to vaporise autumn leaves from railway lines and minimise passenger delays in the future.

Throughout October, Network Rail has been carrying out comprehensive testing using its multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs) on heritage lines at the East Lancashire Railway.

Engineers have been testing if autumn treatment trains fitted with the laser beams and superheated plasma jets are as effective at cleaning rails as the current method using high pressure water systems.

During autumn train wheels compress leaves onto rails and form a black Teflon-like residue which makes it harder for trains to brake or accelerate.

The two different companies involved in the testing are:

Laser Precision Solutions – The ‘LaserTrain’ uses three high powered beams per railhead to treat the rails. When the intensity of the lasers hits the railhead the contamination instantly vaporises (ablates), without heating up the rail.

PlasmaTrack – Uses direct current (DC) plasma technology which uses heat and active electrons to split things apart. The high energy electrical plasma beam tears apart the leaf layer as well as heating and burning it off.

Currently a fleet of leaf-blasting trains with high-pressure water jets clear Britain’s 20,000-mile railway network in the autumn.

Each year:

  • The treatment fleet covers 1 million miles between October and December
  • That’s the entire network being treated 50 times over
  • Or the same as going to the moon and back twice
  • It uses around 200 million litres of water

This technology could potentially reduce the need for that water, and the fuel needed to transport it around the country, benefiting both the environment and costing the taxpayer less.

If the tests find lasers or plasma can clean the rails effectively, further development work will be needed to see if it would work on the complexities of the live railway network.

Further studies would also be required to examine the business case for adopting any new technology.

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