Turning Over a New Leaf; Self-Made SEPTA Equipment Helped Significantly Reduce Slippery Rail Delays in 2004

PHILADELPHIA — A drip followed by a slip often produces a late trip on railroads awash with trees all across the globe during autumn – also referred to in the industry as slippery rail season.

But despite the abundance of foliage and higher than normal rainfall in the Philadelphia region in 2004, SEPTA accomplished its goal of diminishing service delays attributed to slippery rail from leaves falling onto its tracks.

In 2004 between the months of October and December for six nights a week SEPTA scrubbed, cleaned, washed and rinsed its tracks to remove leaf residue.

The result was a system-wide reduction in the number of trains delayed by slippery rail by more than 930 trains over the previous year.

"Transit systems worldwide spend a considerable amount of time developing strategies to overcome this problem," said Patrick Nowakowski, General Manager for Operations at SEPTA. "We’re not any different than the rest of them. We’ve tried a number tactics over the years and through trial and error seem to be making progress."

Slippery rail conditions occur in the fall when leaves are crushed against the rails by passing trains. The crushed leaves create a slick coating on the rails particularly when moistened by dew or light rain. This leads to reduced friction between the rail and train wheels, with less friction it takes longer distances to brake and accelerate trains, thus causing delays in travel time.

Dead leaves stalled a total of 657 SEPTA trains last year. By comparison, the number of trains held up by slippery rail conditions in 2003 was 1,589. And in 2002, a whopping total of 2,352 trains were delayed by the occurrence.

While all SEPTA regional rail Routes experienced fewer slippery rail train delays in 2004, some of the biggest improvements were noted on Routes R3 West Trenton, R5 Paoli, and R6 Norristown. R5 train delays were reduced from 409 in 2003 to a total of just 168 in 2004. The R6 line experienced 91 fewer train delays from slippery rail conditions, while on the R3 line delays were reduced by a total of 85 trains compared to the previous year.

SEPTA also reduced the duration of delays attributed to slippery rail. For example, in 2004 the number of trains delayed between six and 10 minutes totaled less than 500, while almost 800 trains were delayed between six and 10 minutes in 2003. The duration of delays was reduced in every category SEPTA recorded data for in 2004.

Much of the performance of SEPTA’s track-cleansing program and success can be credited to the railroad workers who built SPAX 2104, a flat car specially equipped with a high-pressure washer system.

SPAX 2104 is a beefed up version of two locomotives SEPTA began using for the first time in 2003 with great success. The two previous models worked well by discharging water at 5,000 pounds per square inch but SPAX 2104 blasted away leaves and debris by unloading water onto the tracks at 10,000 pounds per square inch.

"Recently we’ve relied heavily on the high-pressure washer vehicles and they’ve had a positive effect," said Nowakowski. "We’re pleased with the progress we’ve made over the last two years during this historically difficult season. Our efforts have been beneficial to our riders."

In addition to the trio of high-pressure rail washing vehicles operated overnight on Regional Rail Lines and the Norristown High Speed, SEPTA reinforced its efforts by operating a vehicle outfitted with rotating brushes along the rails to scrub away any remaining leaves and oily deposits.

— PRNewswire