UK rail partners battle too-green tracks with Smart Weed System

GB Railfreight (GBRf) is about to step up to the front line of weed control around the UK network. In collaboration with Bayer Environmental Science, Network Rail and several high-tech partners, the large freight operator is tackling the huge task of keeping Britain’s tracks weed free, and ultimately safer and in better shape. They say their new approach will transform essential weed control maintenance on the network.

The railways are by far the most environmentally friendly way to move goods and people about, but they often move other things around as well. For other things, read the pandemic in purple that’s also known as Buddleia. carried by the wake of trains, the invasive species is everywhere on the network, growing out of switchgear, trackbeds and, most alarmingly, infrastructure buildings and bridges. Until now, the approach has been to hit the network with tanker-loads of weedkiller. Now time is up for that chemical catastrophe, as tighter and tighter rules are introduced, to reduce the compounds that can be used, and avoid collateral damage to the environment.

Chemical romance is over

Providing rail operations expertise, GB Railfreight will be the driving force behind three new Smart Weed System trains, which will commence service on the British railway network later this spring. Using a far more surgical approach, the trains will have the capability to eliminate potentially dangerous weed infestations with far greater precision than the traditional weed killing and leaf removal trains.

The traditional chemical drenching may soon be a thing of the past (Network Rail)

With ever more stringent curbs on the use of chemical weed killers, some engineers have said they feel they are doing little more than “watering the plants” when they take to the network, and battle their number one enemy: the Buddleia plant.

Buddleia enemy number one

Familiar to everyone who uses the rail network, the often purple-flowered plant was introduced to Europe, and the UK in particular, by Victorian plant hunters. The plant is native to warmer climates in Africa, Asia and the Americas, but it thrives vigorously in temperate climates. It has well adapted to the railways, where it enjoys stoney surfaces, such as railway ballast and buildings. Unchecked, it can cause serious deterioration and damage.

The hi-tech approach being delayed on the GBRf trains will detect weeds, including Buddleia, using train mounted cameras. The smart imaging detects the delinquent vegetation, and even smarter dispensers squirt the most appropriate herbicide as accurately as possible, improving the environmental footprint. The data generated will be uploaded to a cloud database using GPS software, which will enable weed control to be monitored and reported round the clock from a central point. Preloaded data will even disable the system as the the train approaches a ‘non-treatment zone’, such as a watercourse or bridge.

Being mean to green

Lots of approaches have been used all over the railways. In Belgium, managers even tried a flock of sheep, to eat their way though the overgrowth. The Brits are going for a less-wooly approach. “The higher efficiency of the three new trains combined with the modern technology and asset life will provide a more efficient weed control program for years to come”, said Mark Wyborn, head of strategic development at GB Railfreight. “Aiming for a safer rail industry for all should be a priority. This investment from Bayer into the collaboration will bring a new level of scientific expertise and knowledge to the rail industry and will help to drive forward weed control and safety for future years.”

The hi-tech is hidden on a hi-tech train (GBRf)

Commenting on how the partnership will increase the safety of the railways, Alan Morris, Bayer environmental science UK country head said weeds can cause contamination of valuable equipment and lead to a range of health and safety issues for both workers and passengers. “This technology is not only an innovation for the rail industry but weed control globally, so we’re delighted to be involved in this collaboration with key members of the rail industry.”

The first train will be introduced and in service on UK railways from May, with the second and third train planned for use in April 2022.

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Author: Simon Walton

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