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

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

Space-age technology using lasers and plasma jets is being trialed as a more sustainable way to vaporize autumn leaves from railway lines and minimize 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 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.

“Leaves on the line are often seen as a joke on the railway but they can cause serious problems and we’re always looking at new ways to tackle this age-old problem," explains Suhayb Manzoor, Network Rail project engineer.

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 vaporizes (ablates), without heating 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. However, the treatment fleet covers even 1 million miles between October and December. It means that the entire network is treated 50 times over. During this treatment, around 200 million liters of water are used.

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.

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