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City Watch: THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO FOR RAIL COMMUTERS.

RAIL chiefs are spending pounds 40 million to help ease the misery caused to commuters by "leaves on the line".

They are buying 25 Thunderbirds-style vehicles which will also tackle hazards such as ice and weeds.

The first of the multi-purpose machines, which can also fight fires, is already undergoing trials. The remainder are due to arrive by the end of the year.

News of the investment comes just two days after Railtrack was heavily criticised by safety chiefs over a sharp rise in the number of broken rails.

It was welcomed by train operating companies which have faced fierce criticism for running more late trains since privatisation.

A new report from the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee will turn the spotlight on punctuality again on Wednesday.

But the train companies blame seven out of 10 delays and cancellations on problems with the track or signalling, which are Railtrack's responsibility.

Leaves on the line were blamed for 222,000 minutes - 22 weeks - worth of delays last year, most of which occurred in October and November.

Railtrack says the new German and French-built vehicles will help more services keep to timetable.

"We're never going to beat Mother Nature but we are doing all we can to keep her in check,""says a spokesman. "The latest weapon in our armoury is like something out of Thunderbirds. They have an engine at each end and a section in the middle designed to slot over several different pods.""

He says they boast an impressive arsenal including high-power water jets to blast away leaves. They can also employ steel "scrubbing brushes" to break up ice as well as chemical sprayers to kill weeds.

Railtrack is testing them by covering tracks with masking tape which they say replicates the problem caused by leaves. A Virgin Trains spokesman said: "Leaves on the line sounds like a weedy excuse to passengers but it's a real problem.

"I'm sure travellers will be delighted if this means fewer delays."
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Manning, Clinton
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 15, 1999
Words:329
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