Research on track to end rough rides for rail passengers

Train passengers in the UK could soon be enjoying a smoother journey, thanks to research being carried out in association with the University of Nottingham.

Staff at the University’s School of Civil Engineering and the railway division of the consultancy Scott Wilson Pavement Engineering Ltd are working on ways to help Railtrack maintain and improve the rail network.

They are developing new computer software which simulate railway tracks to predict when they will need repairing and replacing.

Paul Grainger at Scott Wilson said: ‘Millions of pounds could be saved by companies like Railtrack through better targeting of maintenance and renewal work. It will also impact on passengers through an improvement in ride comfort, because if rail companies use this technology to focus on when their tracks need maintaining and renewing it will result in a better quality track.’

The partnership has been formed through a UK government-funded Teaching Company Scheme — aimed at supporting industry by promoting the transfer of good research ideas and techniques into practical technology.

Professor Stephen Brown, Head of the School of Civil Engineering, said: ‘This research extends the earlier work we have done on transferring new technology into the highway industry. The newly privatised rail industry presents important new challenges and is in serious need of improved techniques to enhance the quality and cost effectiveness of its maintenance procedures.’

Paul Grainger has been appointed as Teaching Company Associate and is working with researchers at the University on the two-year project which concentrates on railway trackbeds — the support structure on which railway tracks are laid.

Trackbeds are made up of different layers, including a layer of ballast that sits on top of other materials such as sand, clay or natural ground, forming a stable base for the railway track. Over time the frequency and weight of traffic travelling along it can cause parts of the track to deteriorate, making a bumpy ride for passengers.

The project partners are hoping they will be able to make bumpy tracks a thing of the past by using state-of-the-art computer software. Paul Grainger hopes the technology will soon inform companies such as Railtrack where and when the railway will deteriorate, allowing them to plan their maintenance and renewal works more effectively.

Scott Wilson has already proved itself as one of the frontrunners in developing effective ways of evaluating the condition of railway trackbeds. It has replaced the traditional method of trial pit investigations — digging a hole next to the track to examine the layers beneath — with sophisticated and more scientific ground penetrating radar (GPR), automatic ballast sampler (ABS) and falling weight deflectometer machines (FWD).

Now, by using the new software, Paul Grainger is hoping to be able to predict the rate of deterioration in a length of track by programming in details about the components of the track, the trackbed materials and the type of trains likely to use the line.

Paul added: ‘It is early days, but I am hoping that by developing this technique, Railtrack can increase the weight and frequency of rail traffic and I will be able to predict for them what effect this will have on their tracks a year, five years or even ten years down the line.’

Further details are available from Paul Grainger at paul.grainger@swpe.co.uk