Research points to improved switches and crossings for rail industry

Robust railway switches and crossings that last longer and require less maintenance are under development by Huddersfield University’s Institute of Railway Research.

Used in railways to guide trains to their correct route, these ‘points’ are the most vulnerable components of the rail network, requiring frequent and costly maintenance and replacement to avoid disruptions in service. 

They are  prone to wear and tear because the blades of switches are made of thinner rail and also have to take extra heavy loads as they guide vehicles at speed. Although they count for less than one per cent of the entire route length of railways in the UK, they take up 20 per cent of expenditure on track maintenance and in the worst case, can have an approximate working life of only three years.

Led by Prof Simon Iwnicki, director of Huddersfield’s Institute of Railway Research (IRR), and supported by Southampton University, researchers will use computer-based systems modelling to develop optimised designs for switches, for instance, exploring whether rail companies can tailor new switches to the location in which they are to be laid, making them much more resilient. 

‘We are modelling the contact between the wheel and rail,’ said Prof Iwnicki. ‘We will also be looking at the rails’ support structure. The models have the ability to model problems such as a gap under the track, so we can see how this affects the forces over this. The ideal is to guide the wheel over the switch as smoothly as possible, which can be achieved by changing the track support’s stiffness or the wheel geometry. We could add something extra in, as well as pads and ballast to achieve this – perhaps a new composite material. However, it’s always easier to have one pad type for the entire network, in order to make maintenance easier, so we have to balance these needs.’

The research is part of a £6.5m, five-year project named Track to the Future (T2F), funded by EPSRC and involving the Universities of Southampton, Birmingham and Nottingham, who will work in three main areas including this and the development of noiseless tracks.