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Network Rail on the wrong tracks

The recent media revelations about Network Rail’s lineside tree management policies have raised concerning questions for many of us across the UK. The company has produced a new engineering manual that outlines its plans for 'enhanced clearance' of trees and vegetation along its tracks, during “Control Period 6” (CP6) - or 2019—2024 to the rest of us.

The story is based around a mapping exercise that Network Rail carried out. Using aerial drones, a map of the linear estate was created, complete with a 60m buffer either side of the fence to ensure that all risks were identified. This exercise led to 13 million trees being identified, which includes trees on other people’s land. It’s important to point out here that Network Rail has never said it will be cutting 13 million trees down.

Network Rail has a statutory power to remove any lineside vegetation that could present a risk to passenger safety. This includes trees that could derail or otherwise strike trains, interfere with overhead power lines, or obscure signs and other information to the driver.

Or even shed the wrong kind of leaves.

Network Rail felling at Heaton station, Newcastle (Photo: Chris Hayday)
Network Rail felling at Heaton station, Newcastle (Photo: Chris Hayday)

How has it come to this?

Health and safety of rail travellers is of course paramount. According to a Guardian article in the year to March 2017, there were 233 incidents involving a tree being struck by a train. A tree with a diameter of just 150 mm is regarded as sufficient to cause a derailment.

In the days of steam, when most of what is now Network Rail’s trackways were constructed, verges, embankments and cuttings were essentially mown grass: anything else was susceptible to fire from the coal-fired engines’ cinders. Trees that exist on the lineside today weren’t there back then.

Today, the issues are compounded by pests and diseases such as ash dieback, which make the trees’ wood brittle and more liable to fail. Many of Network Rail’s self-seeded trees encroaching into the danger zone are ash, which seeds prolifically and is an excellent pioneer species.

Our view

It’s pretty clear that lineside trees face an uncertain future. So how should we respond? We’re not going to stand in the way where human safety is at stake, but to what extent is human safety really currently endangered by Network Rail’s lineside trees and over what timescale? And is it right to employ cost-saving measures by felling trees that could otherwise be managed?

What has driven transport minister Jo Johnson’s recent intervention (calling for a pause and review) seems to be less to do with the removal of the trees themselves and more about the timing of their removal. It’s all about birds.

But is it?

Of course trees shouldn’t be felled during the nesting season unless in an emergency (which this isn’t). But in focusing on that issue we risk overlooking the possibility that felling lineside trees without replacement is tipping the country into a state of net deforestation.

Network Rail mulching at Poulton Station, Lancashire (Photo: John Bailie)
Network Rail mulching at Poulton Station, Lancashire (Photo: John Bailie)

Poor planting rates

Woodland creation rates in the UK are painfully low. According to Forestry Commission statistics, just 1100 hectares of new woodland were created in England last year. Things are slightly better in Scotland, but even across the UK as a whole the sum of activity amounted to around 7000 new hectares, a fraction of what is needed if we are to see the Government’s stated ambition of 15% woodland cover by 2060.

The woodland area along Network Rail’s tracks is significant in this context. To take the extreme case – which is unlikely to ever happen but serves well to illustrate the point – if all 13 million trees identified in Network Rail’s mapping exercise were felled, it would be the equivalent of the loss of at least 9000 hectares of woodland.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UK is signatory to a commitment to end deforestation. Network Rail, according to the Guardian, has no intention to replace the felled trees. It has statutory power to remove trees but no legal compulsion to replace them.

Unfortunately, that’s the law.

Recognising the value of the linear forest

But what about the CBD? Doesn’t the Government have a commitment to – at the very least – ensure that as much new woodland is created as is lost? When one of its own agencies is removing trees, shouldn’t another be replacing them? Should Network Rail not be required to do all they can to ensure a retain-and-management-first approach is taken, rather than focus activity on clearances?

The ecological value of these trees must not be ignored. Network Rail’s lineside trees might be an unintended consequence of nature, but they still form woods for wildlife. What’s more, their linear nature makes them a corridor for wildlife, connecting north to south and allowing species freedom to move in an otherwise hostile landscape.

As an alternative to the current lineside management technique of chemically killing tree stumps, one (cheaper) option would simply be to leave them. Some would undoubtedly form coppice stools, providing valuable scrubby habitat on, say, a fifteen year cycle of management. In the meantime of course, nothing would get large enough to cause health and safety issues.

Britain’s railway lines are a highly visible indication of the way we treat our wildlife. Network Rail has a massive opportunity to show how trees can be valued as an asset rather than treated as a costly, inconvenient overhead.

We plan to make these points to them.

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