Wet leaves are surprisingly disruptive to trains.
Photo: Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images
“NASA just blew up a fucking asteroid in space,” Paul Bogaards told me, pausing at each word to emphasize his agitation. “And they can’t fix the slippery leaf problem here in New Jersey?” In his 20 years traveling to Manhattan on New Jersey Transit’s Montclair-Boonton line, Bogaards – a longtime public relations executive who once described his working style as “casual and profane” – came to view the rail system as a “failing state enterprise” and became something of a prolific tweeter on the subject. (“Offer $500 CASH to the commuter who comes up with the MOST ACCURATE SLOGAN for the shitshow that is @NJTRANSIT.”) Service issues on his ride were so consistently bad, he claims, that after the pandemic, he left the state entirely: “We left New Jersey because of my experience on New Jersey Transit, to be clear.” While Bogaards’ list of complaints about the rail system is long, the delays and service problems caused by falling leaves are particularly infuriating, if only because a few wet leaves sound like an insignificant hindrance.
Every fall, whenever it rains and NJ Transit trains pass over wet leaves that have fallen onto the tracks, contact pressure crushes them into a thin layer of oily residue that coats the tracks, creating “rail slippery” that require engineers to maneuver trains more slowly and carefully. For commuters who rely on NJ Transit, however, the issue of wet sheets tends to be recorded as lazy justification for service delays. (“I understand that leaves falling from trees are a new phenomenon,” reads one typical complaint.) Throughout wet leaf season, which typically runs from early October through December, commuters regretfully expect the phrase “slippery rail conditions” to be added to the repertoire of excuses for delays. from NJ Transit. While the rail system has made strides over the past two decades by acquiring millions of dollars worth of equipment to combat slippery rail conditions, for riders the question remains: how come a problem as predictable as falling leaves can still spoil their journeys? ?
When I first encountered the problem on my own, en route to my father’s birthday dinner in Morristown last October, I observed that our train inexplicably stopped for about five minutes, a reversed directions, backed up behind previous station, then started forward again. He kept doing it two more times without stopping to let anyone out. A slow-boiling social experiment began to unfold: passengers cycled through every emotion, from anger to panic; someone pressed the “emergency” button, only to be told by an NJ Transit employee that doing so in the absence of a legitimate emergency was illegal. Amid the chaos, a grizzled commuter seated nearby, presumably in his final stage of commuter grief (acceptance), explained that the train needed a quick start to gain enough momentum to clear the leaf-covered hill wet. (NJ Transit spokesman Jim Smith confirmed that this method is deployed in “isolated cases.”)
Over the years, NJ Transit has amassed various weapons to help wage its annual war against the wet leaf mud. Each train is equipped to spray sand on the tracks in front of its wheels to increase traction, and NJ Transit employees trim nearby trees to help stem the number of leaves on the tracks. The big guns, however, are the two of service AquaTrack Machinery: high-pressure washing systems mounted on flat cars and blowing the rails with water at a rate of up to 20,000 pounds per square inch. The carriages pull large reservoirs of water, moving slower than passenger trains as they spray the tracks, creating a cloud of mist that erupts from both sides. After implementing the first AquaTrack in 2003 on the Montclair-Boonton and Morris & Essex lines, NJ Transit expanded its coverage area in 2016 by purchasing a second of the approximately $1 million machines, which now operate twice per day in some areas. Each October, when NJ Transit launches AquaTracks for the first time in the season, it issues A press release which changes very little from year to year, touting the efficiency of the machines while being careful not to promise anything too much. While AquaTracks have reduced delays and remain what Smith calls a “critical element” in NJ Transit’s efforts to combat slippery rail conditions, their impact isn’t always apparent to commuters.
“In general, NJ Transit seems to be caught off guard by perfectly predictable seasonal issues – falling leaves, rain, even light snowfall,” says Morris & Essex line commuter Stephen Whitty. “I know NJ Transit never have enough moneybut it seems to me that they could be a little more proactive in sorting things out in advance.
Northeastern rail systems have their own methods for dealing with wet leaves (the problem is prevalent everywhere with deciduous trees), but the most futuristic approach might be the Long Island Rail Road. laser train, which is leased to the Dutch company Laser Precision Solutions. First used in 2019, the train features a mechanical arm on each side that lowers to approach the tracks. The mechanism then blasts the rails with a high-intensity laser to remove mud from wet sheets and other contaminated layers. While similar technology was tested by Dutch Railways in 2014, the LIRR laser train remains unique and was initially considered a gamble. “No railway wanted to try it because it was untested,” said Phillip Eng, then LIRR chairman, said in 2019. “Somebody has to be the first to do it.” (Asked about the cost of each laser train, an MTA spokesperson declined to share numbers.)
In the first year of Laser Train operation, the MTA reported weather-related delays for November on LIRR dropped 65% from the previous year. While the LIRR also uses pressure washers similar to NJ Transit’s AquaTracks, the laser train is able to cover more of the system in less time, according to an MTA spokesperson, cleaning the track enough in one go. passage for its effects to last. 24 hours. In 2020, LIRR acquired a second laser train from Laser Precision Solutions, and earlier this year the UK’s Network Rail followed suit announcing that he would test the company’s own laser train. (Network Rail previously fought wet leaf mud – or “leaf on the line” as the Brits call it – by blasting the rails with high-pressure water jets, then dropping sand on the heads of rail.) When asked if NJ Transit had considered acquiring a laser train, Smith replied, “At the moment, the AquaTrack units we have provide sufficient cleaning capabilities.”
Liam Blank, policy manager for the nonprofit Tri-State Transit Campaign, suggests NJ Transit consider getting its own laser train, but also says adding another AquaTrack could help improve conditions as part of a multi-pronged strategy that should include more regular cleanings, especially along problematic corridors. “In short,” he says, “it’s a solvable problem that requires a coordinated approach and – surprise, surprise – more money.” For a transport agency without a dedicated source of state revenue and ticket sales that were still 30% below pre-pandemic levels for the month of September, throwing “more money” on the wet sheets may not be in the cards. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, meanwhile, is busy complain to President Biden on New York’s congestion pricing plan, arguing that increasing tolls on New Jersey residents who commute by car would drive more commuters to use the city’s overstretched and underfunded transit infrastructure ‘State.
For his part, Bogaards no longer cares about the politics behind NJ Transit. He seems entirely at peace at the end of our interview, describing the autumn leaves outside his window. As he tells it, his absence from NJ Transit left him a changed man. “I mean, my commute now is across the lake on a ferry from the Adirondacks to Burlington,” he tells me. “And it’s been two years of uneventful point-to-point travel.”