Stabilising railway tracks could reduce delays

Stabilising trackside slopes, introducing a wider size range of ballast and installing flexible pads underneath railway sleepers are among a range of suggestions to reduce rail travel delays, according to the results of new a study. 

The EPSRC rail consortium, which consists of the Universities of Southampton, Birmingham and Nottingham and a number of rail industry companies, produced the 'Railway Track for the 21st Century' study.

The £3.1m, five-year research programme used computer models and trackside and on-train measurement devices to record the forces and pressures the current railway network is subjected to.

The study revealed that the risk of trackside landslides could be reduced by building piles into the earth of nearby slopes and that could produce an estimated £13m-20m in savings. Railway maintenance could also be reduced by introducing flexible pads under sleepers and a greater size range of ballast, as well as reducing the ballast shoulder slope, as these could reduce the stress levels experienced across the track network.  

Professor William Powrie of Southampton University, who led the research, said: “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. 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.”

The study also revealed that savings of £500,000 a year have already been made by using trackside vegetation to manage water content, which reduces shrink-swell problems in the clay underneath the tracks, as well as improving stability in wet conditions. Better risk assessment of trackside earthworks has also improved poor weather management, which in turn has reduced the risk of trains running into landslides. 

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

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