Plantwatch: why it shouldn’t be trees v trains

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Plantwatch: why it shouldn’t be trees v trains

While many trees were felled to prevent ‘leaves on the line’, Network Rail is now trying to treat them as assets

Railways can benefit from trees reducing flooding risk and stabilising slopes from landslides.

Trees and railways have never really got on with each other. In the days of steam engines, trees alongside railways were cut down to prevent engines sparking fires.

Once steam engines were scrapped, the vegetation grew back and more than 6m trees became established alongside Britain’s rail network. However, every autumn led to “leaves on the line” disruption and trees sometimes toppled on to railway tracks in high winds. There led to intense criticism of Network Rail, which then felled many trees, destroying valuable habitats.

Three years ago, John Varley published “Valuing Nature”, an independent review of how Network Rail manages its vegetation. This recommended that trees and plants growing beside the railways should be treated as assets not problems. They should be seen as valuable habitats for wildlife, creating ribbons of nature alongside the 20,000 miles of Britain’s railways.

Instead of felling trees haphazardly, they could be selectively felled to improve habitats, native species planted to suit the right locations, and railways would still benefit from trees reducing flooding risks and stabilising slopes from landslides. Network Rail then set out plans to achieve a net increase in biodiversity by 2035 – a big pledge that needs considerable effort.

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