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Track for the 21st T

here has been much talk about how the railways in Britain need to change. Whether this is in terms of providing better value for money or in improving the performance of infrastructure and other assets, there is now an overriding pressure to ensure Britain’s railways deliver more for less.

To this end, a group of academics have come together to investigate how railway track in Britain can be improved and developed to reflect these new challenges as part of a project called Track 21.

The research is being funded by a Programme Grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The value of the grant is £3.1 million and it runs for five years, following on from work which has been undertaken at the University of Southampton and a number of other universities under the auspices of EPSRC’s Rail Research UK (RRUK) programme.

Led by Professor William Powrie, Track 21 is based at the University of Southampton, but academics from Birmingham


Academics from across the country have come together to develop a railway track which can address the engineering, economic and environmental needs of the railways in the twenty first century, reports Richard Mackillican

and Nottingham are also involved. A number of key rail industry experts will participate in the project in an advisory capacity, giving high level industry steering, access to resources such as test sites and materials, and a rapid route for the results of the research into practice.

“The aim of the project is quite ambitious” says Tony Leyland, project co-ordinator at Track 21. “We want to develop a systematic understanding of key aspects of railway track behaviour, and then integrate and implement this knowledge to bring about a step change in track system performance”.

For operational purposes the research is divided into different packages.

“We will be looking at railway foundations and sub-base, ballast and sleepers. In each case we are trying to develop an understanding of the fundamental science and mechanics behind track system behaviour, rather than making incremental improvements based on empirical observations, as has been done in the past.

“We will also investigate critical zone improvement, which involves understanding and manipulating the fundamental interactions associated with complex parts of the infrastructure such as switches and crossings, along with ‘transition zones’, which occur where, for example, a relatively soft embankment leads onto a much firmer bridge.

“As these initial areas begin to yield results, other activities will come online to assess the effectiveness of ballast and sleeper improvements at a system level; and models will be developed to enable the prediction of whole-life economic and environmental costs and benefits of different sub-base, ballast and track system improvements.

“The final strand of the programme will involve modelling the environmental, engineering and economic performance of track systems and their interactions with vehicles and people, from the ground up in different conditions, to give us a predictive tool that will allow us to specify the most appropriate and cost-effective mix of track and sub-base components in any given situation.”

The organisation of this research is as significant as the content. “What’s distinctive about this project is that we have a unique opportunity to investigate railway track matrix-wise, as a system of elements interacting with each other and with external factors, rather than linearly as a series of individual components.”

The researchers at Track 21 believe this intensive scientific approach has the potential to deliver benefits for a wide range of railway stakeholders, and beyond.

“The railway industry is constantly making

improvements, but what we’re doing is something different. We’re interested in high-quality basic science; working with our industry partners, we want to create the new knowledge that will inform not just gradual advances but a fundamental improvement in the way the existing network is maintained and new lines are designed and built.

“If we succeed, the effects, such as improved reliability and reduced costs, will be felt very widely by railway system owners, operators and users alike.”

Tell us what you think at rail technology magazine Dec/Jan 11 | 39

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