Leaves on the Line

12 Apr 2023

Those of you who live in the UK probably don’t remember Monday, do you? It’s a day best forgotten: the greyest, wettest, windiest Bank Holiday Monday ever. Or, if there have been others even worse, I don’t want to know about them.

Having spent a glorious Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the coast, there was nothing for it on Monday but to turn our backs on the sea and towards the log burner while anxiously calculating the number of hours remaining against the number of logs in the basket. Those numbers did not reconcile. There was nothing for it but to face the gale and driving rain and go to the garden centre up the road to buy more logs.

There were just five cars in the carpark and entering the building was like walking into a mausoleum, silent, dark and dank. Somehow, we felt we must speak in hushed accents.

We quietly got our logs and started to tiptoe towards the pay point. Another customer approached us, wheeling a trolley. 

Even in a mausoleum the British social niceties must be observed.

“Horrid day, isn’t it!”

“Typical bank holiday. Getting your logs in? You’ll need ‘em in this weather.” He had a broad Essex accent.

“Better value here than at the petrol station up the road.”

“Ah, cost a fortune up there.”

There was that slight moment of hesitation, when a British person debates the appropriate choice between nodding and moving away and taking the conversation a little further.

“You could have had a lifetime supply with the trees I’ve felled this week.”

“Oh, yes?” 

“I’m a railway man. We need to fell any trees that might fall on the line.”

The choice made, we were now free to talk the afternoon away. I leaned on my trolley loaded with logs; he leaned on his trolley loaded with geraniums. The conversation rolled on, covering different trees we had seen felled by wind or man, or heard of being felled, or cut down ourselves. Eventually the talk came back to the railways and leaves on the line.

“It’s not what people think, it ain’t: leaves on the line.”


“You see,” he said, leaning a little more heavily on his trolley. “It ain’t got nothing to do with leaves building up so the train wheels slip.”

“No?” That’s what I had always thought, but I wasn’t going to say so.

“It’s the electrics, see?”

“It is?”

“See, when a train is coming up to a crossing, it triggers a controller, see? That controller lifts a piece of the track, so the lights go red.”

He paused, awaiting my comprehension.

“I see.”

“Well, if you get a build up of wet leaves, sometimes they fall into that gap and get wedged like, so the lights stay red. “

“Right,” I showed I understood.

“Well, ain’t nothing can move on the whole line if them lights stay red.”

The man with the geraniums and I parted, with expressions of gratitude on my part, and the satisfaction of having educated another member of the ignorant public on his.

It made me wonder, though, just how many mistaken assumptions I’m living with. What do I believe without ever having questioned?

The next time you hear about leaves on the line, you will know just why the trains have stopped. Perhaps we will all have a slight feeling of superiority that we now know just why those leaves on the line stop the trains from running.

Because nothing ain’t running if them lights stay red.


A Moodscope member

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