A Government report has called for a "significant reduction" in vegetation along railway lines in the wake of last winter's damaging storms, which caused widespread disruption to train services.
The Transport Resilience Review calls on railway network manager Network Rail to develop a 10-year strategy to reduce lineside trees and vegetation, saying the current practice of clearing to a distance of 3-5m from the track "in no way adequately addresses the risk of trees being blown onto the line". It adds that vegetation can also undermine sloping banks, particularly on clay.
As well as a strategic approach to preventing regrowth after vegetation clearance, it also urges an "active biodiversity strategy" on cleared areas and a programme of offsetting tree planting away from the railway.
Addressing the sizeable budgetary implications of these moves, the report recommends that Network Rail work with train-operating companies and the Office of Rail Regulation to "drive the case" for such a strategy, given the costs associated with rolling stock damage and loss of passenger-carrying capacity.
It also points out that more than 60 per cent of the trees that were blown over last winter fell on adjacent land, and that the statutory route to having such trees felled as a precautionary measure rests on the "archaic" Railway Regulation Act of 1842.
The report calls on the Department for Transport to replace the act "at the earliest opportunity" to prioritise network resilience.
Network Rail: Seeking the right balance
Network Rail said: "We need to do more in this area to strike the right balance between encouraging biodiversity on the railway and protecting passengers and services from the impact of fallen trees.
"As part of this strategy, we will be working closely with local communities and environmental groups to discuss how best to manage any significant reduction in lineside vegetation.
"It's no coincidence that HS1 (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link), which was built to modern engineering standards with appropriate levels of trackside vegetation, was unaffected by the extreme weather."