​EPSRC-funded research points to current and future rail improvements

A rail consortium funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has highlighted several ways in which the UK’s track infrastructure could be improved.


Engineers investigating ballast migration.
Engineers investigating ballast migration.

The £3.1m research project, entitled “Railway Track for the 21st Century”, took place over five years. It involved a consortium led by the University of Southampton, alongside the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham plus industry partners who provided additional financial support.

Using computer modelling as well as on-train and trackside measurement, the consortium investigated the forces that railway track is subjected to, coming up with proposals to mitigate against some of the most significant problems.

It concluded that more effective management of lineside vegetation could help manage water content and improve stability, while better risk assessment of earthworks would reduce the risks of trains encountering landslides during periods of high rainfall. Piles driven into banks of land to stabilise slopes could further lower the risks of landslides, and a wider range of grain size supporting the track could help reduce stress and ease maintenance requirements.

Discrete element model of ballast and sleeper interface.
Discrete element model of ballast and sleeper interface.

“Trains have changed hugely over the last few decades, but the track and earthworks they run on are substantially the same as a century ago,” said Prof William Powrie, University of Southampton. 

“Increases in the speed and weight of trains are putting our rail infrastructure under growing pressure, while increases in service frequency are reducing maintenance windows. The changes we’ve explored offer ways to help maintain and upgrade the infrastructure for the 21st century.”

According to the consortium, a slope stabilisation project in London has already achieved £1.5m in savings, shaving four months off the completion time. It is estimated that savings of between £13m and £20m can be made from improved design based on the research.

Scale track model tests for noise radiation and absorption.
Scale track model tests for noise radiation and absorption.

“This is an excellent example of how research aligned to government transport policy produces significant benefits, in this case for the railways and passengers,” said Kedar Pandya, head of engineering at EPSRC.

EPSRC will now provide the bulk of the funding for the £8.2m follow on project, “Track for the Future”, which will take place over the next five years. The same consortium will undertake the research, joined by Huddersfield University.

“Our work has shed more light on the many complex factors and mechanisms that determine how railway track behaves,” Prof Powrie said in a statement. “Our conclusions are equally applicable to the UK’s existing rail network and to the high-speed railways of tomorrow.”