ScotRail is cancelling trains hours in advance – because it expects rails to be slippery later in the day.
The move has triggered anger from passengers, but officials said it was needed to minimise delays.
They said leaf mulch and “excessive moisture” increased the risk of train wheels slipping, and special trains which sprayed sand on to tracks to improve adhesion could only partially solve the problem.
As a result, train drivers reduced their speed to avoid overshooting platforms or red signals, adjusting their driving like motorists on ice.
However, this has led to a build-up of delays for following trains, especially on busy lines with many stations, such as on suburban routes in Glasgow.
The ScotRail Alliance, which includes track owner Network Rail, said the cancellations involved 15 trains a day, which were chosen because they caused the biggest knock-on disruption.
These have included trains not stopping at stations over part of their routes, or “skip stopping”. In other cases, services have been “part cancelled”, or run over only part of the route.
On Thursday, a train due to run between Milngavie and Anderston in Glasgow city centre at 8:09pm was cancelled at 4am. Just after 4am, a service scheduled to leave Helensburgh for Edinburgh at 7:26pm had four stops removed.
Commuters reacted in disbelief at being told of the cancellations because of “forecasted slippery rails”.
Gavin Young tweeted: “So I’ve gone from a late-running train to a cancelled train due to slippery tracks. Never heard anything so ridiculous.”
Another passenger said: “It’s about the oddest excuse I’ve seen yet. From what I could make out from the service update online, my train was cancelled because of forecasted slippery rails, not because they actually were slippery. It sounded to me like they’re just throwing in the towel.”
Barry Knock, from South Lanarkshire, said: “Why don’t Network Rail and ScotRail, as a first step, have a leaf-fall timetable with longer journey times and slightly fewer but longer trains, by using the stock from the withdrawn services?
“A second step should be more rail-head treatment.”
Passenger watchdog Transport Focus said travellers must be better informed.
Chief executive Anthony Smith, pictured, said: “Leaf-fall timetables can give passengers a more realistic schedule on which to plan their journeys. However, it is essential it is well publicised and, most importantly, accurate.
“It is vital ScotRail continues to reduce the impact of leaves on the line to help build trust in its services.”
The ScotRail Alliance said it had altered a “tiny” number of trains – 0.6 per cent of its daily total. A spokesman said: “They were changed to protect the overall timetable as a result of forecast weather conditions.
“This action can be taken at any time of year, but we do our utmost to alert customers in advance to give them time to make alternative arrangements.”
Kevin Lindsay, Scotland district secretary of the train drivers’ union Aslef, said: “As professional train drivers, Aslef members always drive to the conditions of the track.
“It’s disappointing that [ScotRail operator] Abellio yet again are cancelling trains and letting down passengers rather than having faith in their drivers.
“It is time the Scottish Government looked at removing Abellio as the franchise holder and returned Scotland’s railways to public hands.”