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Special Trains Deployed to Battle Slippery Leaf Buildup on MTA Staten Island Railway Tracks

MTA Staten Island Railway deploys special equipment to clean leaf residue off tracks
MTA Staten Island Railway deploys special equipment to clean leaf residue off tracks

Autumn may be a time of natural beauty for the New York City area as green foliage gives way to hues of yellow, orange and red. But for MTA Staten Island Railway (SIR) and other MTA commuter lines, colorful leaves signal a return to heightened concern over the impact that fallen leaves have on safety and service – an operating condition known as slippery rail.

SIR mitigates the effect of slippery rails with equipment, extra manpower, staff diligence and technology. The first step is to trim or remove trees and vegetation alongside the tracks. From October to mid-December, a special work train runs on mainline tracks every weeknight to apply a thin layer of traction gel, which helps to increase friction between the rails and train wheels. Sand also helps alleviate the residue buildup, so SIR uses a diesel locomotive to spray sand onto the running rails and MTA workers place sand on the tracks. On weekends, a work train equipped with a high-pressure hot-water spraying system cleans the buildup off the rails.

Unlike MTA New York City Transit’s subways, most of which run in tunnels or on elevated tracks above the tree line, 99 percent of SIR operates outside in a tree-lined environment. Tree-lined tracks make a scenic commute, but when the trees shed their leaves, some land on the rails. Trains that crush the leaves end up with wheels coated by leaf residue left on the rails.

Compacted by the weight and crushed into a gelatinous goo, this slime-like substance reduces the normal amount of adhesion train wheels have on the rails. The leaf slime prevents rail adhesion, leading to this slippery rail condition that makes it difficult for trains to come to a stop no matter their operating speed. To ensure safety, SIR institutes slower speeds for trains passing through an area where slippery rail conditions are reported, which can cause delays.

“Anyone who has ever driven a car and tried to brake on a patch of ice knows something of what it feels like for a train engineer who applies the brakes to a train on a patch of rails coated in liquefied leaf residue,” said MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota. “As autumn begins, we turn our attention to fighting leaves that have fallen on our tracks, but throughout the year we work to combat vegetation along the rails.”

SIR makes every effort to run trains as close to schedule as possible, but customers should consider taking earlier trains to ensure a timely connection with the Staten Island Ferry or connecting buses.