What's involved when we cut back vegetation from the side of the railway, and why is it necessary?

Before managing vegetation next to the railway, we take time to plan how we approach the work to achieve a respectful balance between protecting Britain's lineside biodiversity and keeping the railway running safely.

We take just as much care when carrying out the work itself. Here's what we do:

  • We clear all vegetation between five and seven metres from the track – according to the site's requirements and the type of infrastructure (like overhead power lines). If not cut back, overgrown trees and shrubs could cover up signals – the traffic lights of the railway – and potentially cause an accident.
  • It is needed to clear vegetation further back where trains run at higher speeds, in cuttings or embankments, or where there are level crossings or overhead line equipment.
  • Weeds and ground cover are kept to a minimum, and low-lying scrub past the six-metre point could need cutting back so that our teams can work safely without trip hazards.
  • In some places it is also required to clear the vegetation to help trackside teams examine or repair earthworks and structures.
  • To reduce the problems caused by leaves falling on the railway in the autumn, Network Rail target certain tree species including poplar and sycamore.
  • We treat stumps with herbicide to stop unwanted regrowth from the stumps. This means we prevent overshading and enable more diversity in ground flora to grow.

Ongoing vegetation management promotes safety and is more cost-effective than reacting to damage and delays caused by a fallen tree.

Whenever possible, we carry out vegetation clearance while trains continue to run, but cutting back trees that are already very close to overhead lines is dangerous, so we need to close the railway line to do this safely.

Not all potentially hazardous trees are on Network Rail land, so we work closely with land owners and line side neighbors to make sure that trees next to the railway aren't a danger, whether they're on Network Rail land or not. If we need to prune neighbors' trees that overhang fences or boundaries, we'll always seek permission first.

When the job's finished

  • We leave the area tidy and either remove the logs and branches or chip smaller branches to spread them evenly as chippings. We are looking in to initiatives to use some of the material produced by our vegetation management such as bio-fuel.
  • On sites where there is enough room and it is safe to do so, some of these smaller branches may be left in a small pile as habitat for wildlife, such as hedgehogs, reptiles and amphibians.

If you'd like to get in touch with us about vegetation management along the railway, you can do so be email or telephone.