Updated 14/01/2016


Network Rail

prepares for





Photos & Text Courtesy Network Rail


Network Rail

14 Jan 2016


With temperatures dropping across Britain and snow on the ground

in many places this morning,

Network Rail's 'Orange Army' are working round the clock

to keep tracks clear of sleet, snow and ice

so that passengers aren't affected by unnecessary delays.


Just like road and air travel, wintry weather can pose challenges for the rail network.


To help keep passengers moving,

Network Rail operates a special winter fleet

– complete with snowploughs, hot air blowers, steam jets, brushes, scrapers and anti-freeze

– to clear snow and ice from the tracks,


and has fitted over 100km of special heating strips

to prevent ice building up on conductor rails,

which power trains in the south and south east of England.


NASA-grade insulation and special heaters have been fitted

to thousands of sets of points to prevent ice forming at key junctions,

monitored by a combination of smart technology and helicopter-mounted thermal imaging.


Network Rail also works closely with train operators

to run empty trains throughout the night to help keep tracks clear –

while thousands of members of Network Rail's orange army

will also be patrolling the tracks day and night

clearing snow and ice from junctions and tunnels

to keep railways across Britain running.


Purpose-built Snow Clearing Train







Another Purpose-built Snow Clearing Train







Hot air blower used to defrost tracks and junctions







Snow Plough in previous years







Snow ploughs at Carlisle Depot







Snow Plough in previous years

Photos Courtesy Network Rail


How Network Rail minimises disruption caused by snow and ice:


  • We have ten snow and ice treatment trains (SITTs) fitted with snowploughs, hot air blowers, steam jets, brushes, scrapers and jets for heated anti-freeze and compressed air to quickly de-ice tracks.


  • We've attached heaters and NASA-grade insulation to points to prevent ice forming and added protective covers to 4,000 points and 2,500 points motors to keep snow out and prevent damage by ice falling from trains.


  • Thousands of our people patrol the tracks day and night clearing snow and ice from junctions and tunnels.


  • Our remote temperature monitoring and a helicopter fitted with thermal imaging cameras identify points heaters that are not working effectively.


  • Anti-icing fluid and heating strips are used on live conductor rails to prevent ice building up and preventing trains from drawing power; the addition of heating strips has reduced ice-related incidents by up to 80%.


  • Train companies run empty trains through the night to help keep tracks clear, and passenger trains can be fitted with snow ploughs which can clear up to eight inches of snow – if it's deeper, we send in our fleet of dedicated snowploughs.


  • Major routes that are the most at risk have been fitted with fences that prevent snow blowing on to the tracks.


  • In areas badly affected by “frost heave” – where water in the ballast freezes, expands and moves the track – we have re-laid it using a shallower bed of ballast to reduce the movement.


  • Vegetation that is too close to the track is cut back – a continuous challenge as we have over 20,000 miles of track.


  • We work with train companies to optimise the performance of their trains, including upgrades to train software, heated couplings and improvements to door designs to prevent ice build-up.


  • We share best practice with Sweden, Switzerland and other countries to improve how we deal with snow and ice and minimise the impact on the travelling public.

The railway is no different from other modes of transport in being affected by winter weather, including snow and ice.


Cold weather can impact on rail services in a number of ways:

  • Cold weather can cause points and mechanical signals to freeze
  • Snow and ice can block points, limiting the ability for trains to use certain routes.
  • Overhead power lines can also be disrupted if ice forms on the wires
  • Falling snow and sleet can reduce sighting distances for lineside signs and signals, meaning trains have to travel more slowly


Network Rail uses a range of tools to help combat severe winter weather, including:


Weather forecasts: Our weather service provider, MetDesk, provides Network Rail with a specialist forecast which predicts the weather and the specific conditions which could affect the tracks and the probability of ice forming on the third rail.


Point heaters: Gas and electric point heaters prevent points from freezing and are automatically activated when rail temperatures fall below a certain level. During extreme conditions, thousands of staff work night and day to check hundreds of points at key junctions to prevent equipment from freezing.


Snow fences: In certain key locations that regularly suffer the effects of snow, snow fences can be installed to prevent snow drifting onto the tracks.


Snow/ice clearing: a variety of equipment is available to clear snow when it reaches a depth of six inches or more, including miniature snow ploughs which fit on the front of trains for smaller volumes of snow, larger snow ploughs which fit to individual locomotives and can clear up to six feet of snow and independent drift ploughs, which are used for greater depths.


Anti-icing spray: A fleet of specialist anti-icing trains spray heated anti-freeze onto the third rail and snow ploughs will also operate across the affected areas. The train operators will also run empty passenger trains, or 'ghost trains' throughout the night to try and prevent snow and ice building up. Some train operators will also have anti-icing equipment attached to their trains to cover an even larger area.


Emergency timetables: Contingency plans for severe disruption are agreed in advance with train operators, and can be activated and communicated to passengers when disruption is likely.


Icicle patrols: Network Rail staff patrol tunnels and under bridges during periods of sub-zero temperatures to ensure that icicles do not cause obstruction to trains or to overhead line equipment.



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