Huddersfield University researchers are taking part in an EU project to develop railway tracks that can be laid quickly and have fibre optic technology embedded in them.
Such an advance would see instant safety alerts sent from the track and further benefits are anticipated with cost savings and efficiency gains.
The Institute of Railway Research (IRR), headed by Prof Simon Iwnicki, is based at the University and is one of the partners in a €15m, four-year project funded by the European Union under its Seventh Framework Programme.
Named Capacity4Rail, the scheme aims to ensure that railways will continue to meet Europe’s transport needs over coming decades. Low maintenance infrastructure, more resilient and easily repairable points – or switches – and higher-speed freight vehicles are among the goals.
There are 47 partners with Huddersfield’s IRR concentrating on a work package entitled ‘modular integrated design of new concepts for infrastructure’.
One of the IRR’s tasks will be to help in the development and design requirements of new track systems.
In a statement, the institute’s head of research, Dr Yann Bezin, said: ‘We will be looking at more efficient designs and methods of building a track, in a modular way rather than by laying down ballast layers and then individual sleepers and putting the rails on top. That takes a long time and requires very expensive and heavy machinery. Modular concepts allow track to be brought pre-assembled in sections for a quick installation.
‘A big problem is vertical support of the track. Currently you get deterioration from one sleeper to the other or the ballast degrades and some sleepers become unsupported. A concrete sleeper is the norm, but we have studied a steel track system that uses steel beams. This gives consistency of support and better control of dynamic forces.’
Dr Bezin added that the construction of modular track sections in the factory would mean that they could be pre-equipped with smart technology.
‘We could make the track system intelligent. Fibre optics running along the rail would enable you to know from the signal whether or not there is an unusual deformation, an indication of fatigue cracking or some other problem’.
This condition monitoring system would make maintenance a much simpler process, adding to the efficiency gains from modular track construction.
The IRR will receive more than €470,000 for its contribution to Capacity4Rail. In addition to work on modular track sections, the Institute’s researchers will study new designs for the construction of switches and crossings – complex elements of the rail network that are the most vulnerable to wear and damage.
The IRR will also be investigate resilient new materials for crossings and switches, working with the metallurgist Jay Jaiswal, formerly of Tata Steel, who has been appointed a visiting professor at the University.