Commuters Warned Of "Slippery Rail" Delays

by Judy Silberstein

(November 15, 2006) Anyone who’s slipped on one of Larchmont’s slate sidewalk greased with wet slimy leaves can sympathize with Metro-North Railroad ’s “slippery rail” problem. Trains are as susceptible as pedestrians to sliding, according to information released on Tuesday, November 14 announcing the onset of “slippery rail season.” Riders were asked for patience and warned to expect some delays, truncated trains and concomitant seat shortages.

In fact, Larchmont commuters are already experiencing “leaf-related” delays. On Monday, November 13, the evening 5:33 train from Grand Central was 6 minutes behind, and the 6:18 was 12 minutes late pulling into the Larchmont station, according to Metro-North data. Going the other way, the the 4:48 was ten minutes off and the 4:53 was fifteen minutes late arriving in Grand Central.

How can some wet leaves cause a multi-ton train to slide on the tracks? Evidently, a mixture of wet air, rain and crushed leaves produces a slimy substance that adheres to the rails and interferes with the train’s ability to speed up or slow down. Sometimes the slick leaves create a cascade of negative consequences: a slipping wheel “tricks” the train’s circuitry into perceiving excess speed, which triggers an emergency stop, which flattens the wheels, which requires cars to be taken out of service so the wheels can be “trued.” The stops cause delays, and the shortage of cars produces overcrowded trains.

So, what’s to be done?

Water World

Metro-North Railroad's "Waterworld" blasts wet leaves off the tracks with powerful jets of water.
Photo courtesy of Frank English of Metro-North Railroad.

To combat “slippery leaf syndrome,” Metro-North employees have designed a machine they call “Waterworld.” A large flat car is outfitted with high-pressure water jets to blast tracks clear of leaves. Other “leaf sweeper” cars are equipped with revolving steel brushes to remove leaves and scrape their oily deposits off the rails. These operate during off-peak and late-night hours. In addition, each locomotive is equipped with sand; when the wheels start to slip, the sand drops automatically to increase traction. In addition, “We specifically train and re-train our engineers to brake in a very, very gentle way to keep the train from skidding through at stations and to keep the wheels from flattening out,” said Dan Brucker, Metro-North spokesperson.

“It is a time when one really needs to have some patience and understanding,” said Mr. Brucker, who praised local employees for developing innovations in equipment and training to combat the wet leaves. “Even that doesn’t cure but only helps,” he said.

“You truly cannot fool Mother Nature,” he concluded.