Gapless points for safer railways

Gapless railway points that could ensure the safe rollout of high-speed trains are being developed by a former OxfordUniversity tutor in collaboration with ISIS Innovation.

The gapless rail arrangement has been designed to replace existing points used to route railway traffic. Developer John Lucas claims that his design will reduce wear on the railway track, allowing trains to travel at much higher speeds while minimising jolts to improve passenger comfort.

His concept is based on the pivoting movement of railway flanges to the side of the fixed rail and along the railway track. This movement causes the whole rail to move forward and engage at the apex of the crossing where the two inner lines join. The top of the moving blade goes over the sharp apex to form a firm join with the fixed rail going out.

Conventional points systems in the UK only move sideways, leaving a gap between the blade and the fixed rail. Lucas explained that this gap, which can be as wide as 4in (10cm), restricts the maximum speed of the train.

‘If you have a heavy train and the wheel crashes onto the apex of the join, this puts greater wear both on the rail and on the wheels, meaning that they’ve got to be repaired more often,’ he said. ‘This also increases the risk of an accident and quite a lot of the accidents that have occurred both here and abroad have been on account of points failure.’

In the past five years, two major accidents involving fatalities at Potters Bar and Grayrigg in Cumbria have been attributed to points failure. Lucas believes that accidents such as these could be prevented by eliminating the gap in the points to reduce the risk of derailment.

He also claims that the benefits of high-speed rail in the UK will be significantly reduced if railway points are not upgraded alongside high-speed lines. ‘With my system, there are no real limits to speed,’ he said. ‘There will be other engineering problems. For instance, in the extreme case of something that is meant to deal with trains going 250mph, the moving blade would weigh about four tonnes and this is something we’ll have to solve.’

A similar device for high-speed rail, called the swingnose crossing, was developed by researchers in the US. This system eliminates the gap by moving the point of the crossing from side to side in time with the selected direction of change. British Rail trialled the design for a short period, but rejected it in favour of the current system due to safety concerns and the high cost of its rollout.

Lucas is confident that his solution can overcome the problems associated with the swingnose design. ‘The swingnose has the pivot where all the wear is, so you have a greater likelihood of failure. My design is more robust in this respect. The swingnose also needs two movements to be coordinated, whereas my device needs only one, so you reduce the possibility of error there.’

He is working with ISIS Innovation to further develop the system and attract industry partners for commercialisation. The team is in the process of developing the safety systems and reducing the risk of false alarms. The design is currently subject to a UK patent application.

Ellie Zolfagharifard