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The ‘wrong kind of snow’: the challenge of winter weather on our railways

The ‘wrong kind of snow’: the challenge of winter weather on our railways

Rail Partners - The ‘wrong kind of snow’: the challenge of winter weather on our railways
12 January 2024
Neil Ovenden, head of engineering

Snow has already fallen in some parts of the country and wet, windy and icy days and nights are a familiar part of winter. Like roads, aviation and shipping, rail is not immune from the effects of winter weather. But why should ice lead to trains being delayed? Is there any truth to railways being vulnerable to the ’wrong kind of snow’? And why does it seem that our railway can’t cope with winter weather as well as those in other countries do?

Climate change means that our winters are noticeably changing. Compared to 30 years ago, we are more likely to see rain rather than snow, to experience windy days, and to suffer from winter flooding. But we can still expect ice, snow and sub-zero temperatures during our winters for the foreseeable future so it’s important that we know how to keep the railway running during harsh winter weather.

Icy conditions

As well as causing slippery station platforms, ice presents some unique challenges to the railway. In particular, if ice covers the top of the ’third rail’ that provides traction electricity to much of the commuter fleet in the South East of England, its electrically insulating properties can prevent trains from picking up enough power to keep to time. 

During freezing weather, train operators and Network Rail can run ‘ghost trains’ overnight and early morning to keep the top of the third rail ice free, run railhead treatment trains to dispense de-icing fluid on the top of the third rail and switch on third rail heaters to melt the ice.

'Wrong kind of snow'?

Snow presents challenges for rail too, particularly in cuttings, over high ground, or where it can accumulate in banks. Falling snow can make it harder for drivers to see signals, upcoming level crossings, stations, or junctions – leading to potential delays. Snow can also get compacted in delicate train door mechanisms causing either delays or train failures. 

The now infamous ’wrong kind of snow’ newspaper headline resulted from snow becoming airborne again after falling and being pulled into train engines, motors, train horns, ventilation systems etc and causing these to block and fail. Whether or not this happens is very dependent on the snow’s crystal structure, the air temperature when it fell and the ground temperature after it fell, hence: the ‘wrong kind of snow’ is actually a real problem. To eliminate or reduce the failure risk associated with snow ingestion, train operators can fit air filters to motors and horns, or they can fit heaters to train couplers, horns etc.

But why do some other countries seem to cope so much better with extreme winter weather? A large part of the answer is predictability. Countries like Sweden, Canada and Norway know that they will get a lot of snow and very low temperatures each and every winter. This means they can invest in equipment like snowploughs, snowblowers etc knowing that they will be used regularly. Here in the UK, our winters tend to be a lot milder and more unpredictable which makes it harder to justify buying expensive equipment just in case it might be needed in the one year when we get a lot of snow.

The outlook

As an industry, we are making progress in ensuring our trains and infrastructure can cope better with the extremes and the variability of winter weather. We can predict much better incoming poor weather, its likely consequences for our customers and how we can best prepare. 

Rail Partners, together with industry partners, has developed and published cold, hot and autumn weather seasonal preparation guidance for colleagues at both train operating companies and at Network Rail who are collectively responsible for seasonal railway performance delivery. In addition, Rail Partners delivers seasonal preparation webinars for its train operator members to highlight relevant guidance and share case studies of how operators have successfully delivered reliable services in challenging weather conditions.

While we can never eliminate the impact of cold weather on railway operations, sharing best practice, and being well prepared ahead of time are important ways in which we can improve the reliability of services for passengers during the winter months, while maintaining a high level of safety across the network.

For more information on Rail Partners seasonal preparation materials email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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