Weeds aren’t just a threat to our ability to produce enough food – they’re also a constant threat to our travel infrastructure, not least our railways. If left unchecked, weeds can seriously restrict track visibility and track access for workers, and in severe cases, weeds can even render a line impassable.
That’s why, for the last 50 years, specialist operator Weedfree on Track has been taking the fight to prolific weeds across Europe’s rail network, using an innovative and environment-conscious method.
“If glyphosate were to be banned then we would have to find an alternative. There are currently no alternatives that are as effective.” Jean-Pierre Deforet, Chemist at Infrabel
Weedfree on Track is based in Huddersfield, UK, but find the bulk of the work occurs on the continent. From Denmark to Sweden, Belgium to Spain, the innovative technology behind the weedkiller train is making the company highly sought-after in the by Europe’s rail operators. Using a NASA-inspired camera attached to the front of a locomotive, weeds can be identified by their specific chlorophyll content. This information is fed into a central control, which then accurately sprays a glyphosate solution onto only the affected area. This means a 70% reduction in glyphosate use compared to spraying the entire area next to the train. It also reduces any chance of spray drift into private property or public spaces. Glyphosate is already the world’s most tested and regulated herbicide and has been used safely for effective weed control for over 40 years.
Weedfree on Track CEO Neil Bangham
Weedfree on Track Operations manager Jonathan Caine explains how the system works: “The train is unique in that it uses a weed mapping system to find the weeds, which involves two high resolution cameras on either end of the train. The cameras break up the track into a matrix of nine sections. If a weed passes through this area, the infrared camera recognizes the chlorophyll in the plant, identifying whether or not it’s a weed. This tells a pump whether or not to spray, and then one of the 96 nozzles accurately sprays the weed. This means we are only using the very minimum of weedkiller when needed.”
The cameras Caine refers to aren’t standard equipment. They are bolted onto either end of the train using a special frame, which was developed by NASA. This reduces the amount of vibration from the train, thus increasing the sprayer accuracy even further.
Caine says the system has evolved to meet the specific needs, and laws, of each of the countries in which it operates. “In Belgium the amount of sensitive areas, in which we can’t spray, recently rose from 12 to 2,500, which means we had to modify the system to compensate. Previously we would use the kilometer posts along the track to identify when could use the system, which is perfectly manageable with 12 areas, but with 2,500 that’s impossible. We’ve now developed a system that automates when we can use the sprayer based around GPS co-ordinates.”
Weedfree on Track use glyphosate, but due to growing restrictions on its use, they have researched other, non-chemical options. Caine explains the results: “We’ve carried out a number of trials to see how much more effective the train is than manual methods. We’ve estimated manually do the same job, in the same time frame, can cost up to 40 times more. Weedfree on Track is dedicated to trying to reduce the use of pesticides, but whether you’re hand-cutting, using steam, acetic acid or a bio-chemical, the alternatives simply aren’t as effective when used correctly.”
Weedfree on Track CEO Neil Bangham says that because the system is modular, it can be dropped onto any train. “The weed-spraying section is universal, it can be attached to any kind of rolling stock including carriages and bogies. The really unique part is in the weed-detection system, which currently isn’t in use in any other part of the world. The camera can be attached to the front of any locomotive, within reason, making it perfect for use in other countries.”
Weedfree on Track allows the benefit of this unique and innovative glyphosate-based system to be utilised by the regions that need it most. Jean-Pierre Deforet, who is a Chemist at Infrabel (the Belgian railway authority), explains the benefit for Belgium’s railways.
“The weed detection system allows for only the minimal amount to be used, and then it only sprays the weeds when required. This allows us to use far less chemicals. If glyphosate were to be banned then we would have to find an alternative. There are currently no alternatives that are as effective. This would cause a huge problem for Belgium’s railways.
“The alternatives for us are to use mulch or to spray manually. But allowing people onto the tracks would cause another, bigger safety issue than spraying from the train.”