Exclusive: five-year ‘enhanced clearance’ programme targets trees along 20,000 miles of track to avoid delays, according to an internal document
Network Rail is to target all “leaf fall” trees for removal alongside its tracks in a new £800m five-year programme of “enhanced clearance”, according to an internal document seen by the Guardian.
The policy document for 2019-24 emerged as the environment secretary, Michael Gove, summoned the chief executive of Network Rail for talks over their approach to environmental management following revelations about tree felling across the country by the Guardian.
After discussions with Network Rail, Jo Johnson, the rail minister, set up a review into vegetation management . He called for all tree felling to be suspended during the current nesting season – March to August.
Johnson said: “This review will look at all aspects of this issue, including, for instance, whether Network Rail has the capacity and capability to control vegetation in a way that minimises harm to wildlife, and whether staff need more training to help with tree identification and identifying approaches that would be better than felling.”
The leaked document seen by the Guardian sets out a new programme which appears to go further than any current environmental management. It involves an “enhanced level of clearance” of trees and vegetation from the railway banks along 20,000 miles of lines in the UK, in an attempt to deal with costly delays to services.
The document says Network Rail has to manage the risk from 13 million trees within falling distance of its tracks. If they removed 2% of the trees a year over the five-year period, more than 1 million trees could be felled.
“Network Rail is responsible for any damage that they may cause unless it can be robustly demonstrated that it has taken reasonable steps to reduce the risk of that damage occurring,” the document states.
Network Rail said in a statement that it was constantly balancing the needs of the environment against passenger health and safety.
Key species of tree to be targeted for removal are those which the company says are high risk due to the amount and size of leaves they produce. They include sycamore, poplar, horse and sweet chestnut, ash and lime.
Network Rail bosses say in the document they need to reduce the risk of leaves and trees falling on to the lines, improve performance and safety and cut the hundreds of millions of pounds it pays in compensation – called schedule 8 payments – for delays.
Entitled Lineside Asset Management Control Period 6 (CP6), the policy involves the “removal of all leaf fall species” within falling distance of the track, “intensive intervention” on vegetation in close proximity to the railway and the removal of emergent lower level growth at the earliest stage.
The boundary for management of scrub, grasses, trees and shrubs will also increase from five metres either side of the railway – which has been the policy for the last five years – to a minimum of 6.5m.
The document concludes that the initial level of investment – £41,000 per mile of track for the enhanced clearance – will result in “a far better performing, safer railway”.
Grasses and scrubland alongside Britain’s railway lines are made up of more than 1,600 species of plants, including 900 varieties known of as “railway species” that are exclusive to the trackside.
Senior politicians have been in discussions with the publicly owned company over the scale of its vegetation clearance after the Guardian revealed last week millions of trees are at risk.
Gove invited Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail, for talks at his office on Wednesday.
Details of the new planned trackside clearances come as a petition calling on Network Rail to “stop chopping down millions of trees” attracted more than 60,000 signatures.
The scale of felling taking place in the five years to the end of 2018 is not known. Network Rail has not responded to requests to provide the Guardian with an aerial map highlighting “problem” trees earmarked for felling, or reveal how many have been removed in the last year.
A freedom of information response revealed that 30,000 trees were felled by Network Rail or their contractors on the west coast mainline between Euston and Carlisle in the 12 months between February 2016 and February 2017.
Network Rail said there were no plans to replace any of the trees in its FOI response.
Network Rail says in the document it will adhere to environmental legislation which requires it to restrict practices at certain locations or certain times of the year. It says the risks to poor performance and safety from trees includes obstruction of the line, causing delays and putting staff and passengers at risk.
Between March 2016 and March 2017 there were 720 incidents with trees, according to the document. Of these 233 trees were struck by trains. “The likelihood of a tree failure causing an accident is high,” the document states.
The company says the impact from falling leaves in the autumn of 2015 involved four signals passed at danger, 91 wrong side failures and 61 station overruns due to poor rail adhesion attributed to leaf fall contamination.
These incidents, it says, cost Network Rail between £100m and £150m.
Network Rail says in the document that trees and vegetation can have a positive benefit in terms of lineside ecology where desirable flora and fauna has been identified and sustainable management plans have been put into place. It also states the company will “manage the vegetation to comply with legal requirements to protect the environment.”
A spokesperson for Network Rail said it was constantly balancing the needs of the environment with passenger safety and welcomed Johnson’s review.
“Last year we recorded over 400 incidents of trains colliding with fallen trees and another 1,000 where they caused delays to services, costing the industry over £100m. As a result, we have well thought-out standards and policies in place that have been developed over many years with the help of experts that we believe strike the right balance and maintains a safe and biodiverse line side.
“Most of the time when putting those standards and policies into action we get it right, but sometimes we don’t.”
Sara Lom, chief executive of the Tree Council, which works closely with Network Rail, has not seen the new policy document. She said: “We are Network Rail’s critical friend. When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, we tell them.”
She said the charity was carrying out trials with the company this autumn to look at different ways to manage vegetation apart from tree felling. “Alternatives to removal could be coppicing or pollarding or hedging,” she said. “That is better for wildlife, and better for people in the local community.”