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Why does snow stop trains running?

Train in snow

In years gone by the UK has faced some relatively heavy snow. Less than two years ago the ‘Beast from the East’ brought parts of the country to a snowy standstill.

Despite this, many rail commuters and travellers alike often ask the question: Why does snow stop trains running?

It would be easy to think that trains should be able to cope with intense weather conditions and snowfall – but this is usually not the case. 

Train operators work to make sure all passengers travel as safely as possible; there’s no conspiracy to make your day just that bit more frustrating.

There are actually plenty of factors that may contribute to train cancellations. Some are quite obvious, others not so much. 

Train cancelled? Here’s why

British trains tend not to have snowploughs. It’s simply not necessary and would be too expensive to ensure every train has a plough attached. That, paired with the fact that the UK doesn’t see a whole lot of snowfall in comparison to other countries, such as Switzerland, suggests that we won’t be seeing them on trains anytime soon.

Instead, Network Rail, which is responsible for keeping the tracks open use a mix of methods, ranging from independent snow ploughs situated between two locomotives to allow ploughing in either direction through deep drifts, to fitting miniature snowploughs to some locomotives clearing the rail surface.

Trains are also at a much higher risk in slow areas, for instance, when approaching stations or at points. Once the snow has compacted enough to form ice on the tracks, power points can easily be prevented from working.

January 2010, Inverness to Carrbridge derailment. The final resting position of locomotive 66048. Photo: RAIB

Debris is also a major concern when it comes to snowy weather. Tree branches can snap off in the freezing temperatures, creating obstacles on the tracks. Large ice sheets can also damage trains and tracks, which, of course, can also cause rail points to stick together if they are not already packed with snow.

Beyond environmental issues, the trains themselves can be affected by the chilly conditions, with train door runners jamming because of the transfer of grit salt from the platform to the carriage. It’s not unknown for a build-up of snow to occur around the moving parts of the braking system, which then freezes and makes braking ineffective.

In fact, this was the cause of a derailment in January 2010 when a freight train from Inverness was unable to stop on the descent to Carrbridge on the Highland Main Line, derailing with the locomotive ending up in a thicket of trees. Luckily, the driver only suffered minor injuries.

What provisions are there?

It’s not all an uphill battle. Provisions are being developed, with some already in place to try and avoid issues resulting from winter weather and to keep people on the move.

Network Rail now has a fleet of specialised snow treatment trains, which will be used to scrape off ice from rails using tough, metal brushes. They also spray anti-icing fluid, preventing further ice from forming.

Snow treatment machines
No. 99 70 9594 014-1, the former long welded rail train vehicle DB979054 rebuilt for a new role as a mobile point heater for the Scottish Rail Network. Photo: Rail Express magazine.

Heaters and NASA-grade insulations may be fitted onto points that are more likely to freeze over. Train operators will also run empty ‘ghost’ trains during the night hours. This is in order to clear away some of the snow on the tracks.

Most relevant to commuters and travellers, winter timetables will be created in order to provide plenty of notice about expected cancellations, changes and replacements.  

How do I prepare?

Should the weather take a turn for the worse and bring in heavy snow and ice, it’s vital to be prepared.

If you struggle to get your car off your driveway, then it’s likely trains will struggle to leave the station. After all, trains can’t get around obstacles or snowdrifts very easily.

Commuter checking the digital timetables at Waterloo train station
Commuter checking the digital timetables at Waterloo train station. Photo: IStock

Despite all the provisions being implemented to help resolve cancellations, there’s no telling what could happen. So, check timetables ahead of time, consult the weather, look online to find updates and have a plan of action should you find your train has been cancelled. It’s worth remembering rail staff have to get to work too and they could be snowed in.

Sometimes replacement buses will be available; however, if even these are a no-go, perhaps it’s time to give your boss a quick phone call to let them know that you’re having a snow day.

Generally, train companies give advice about not travelling, adding that tickets will be valid for a day or two afterwards. Check on websites and social media to keep up-to-date with this information.

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