Keeping the rail industry on track: looking to the future

Author : Professor Simon Iwnicki, Director of the Institute of Railway Research

17 May 2018

Credit: Institute of Railway Research
Credit: Institute of Railway Research

Railways have now reached their third century – but the journey continues. Rail technology is one of the most progressive areas of engineering research, promising major and measurable social and economic benefits. The Institute of Railway Research discuss the rail industry, its future – and where the IRR fits in throughout.

The British Government is also looking ahead. Rail Minister, Jo Johnson recently launched the £90 million UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) and pledged to deliver the most extensive modernisation programme since the Victorian period. This is timely because, over the past two decades, passenger numbers have increased at a faster rate than in the 19th century.

That statistic will be greeted with a wry smile by travellers on trains with standing room only. But the need to increase capacity is one of the urgent issues identified by the rail industry’s Technical Leadership Group, which has devised a 30-year strategy that will also address issues such as carbon footprint, customer satisfaction and operating costs.

A key member of UKRRIN is the Institute of Railway Research (IRR), a comprehensive facility at the University of Huddersfield, staffed by a multinational team of 32 scientists and engineers. Alongside its sector-leading test facilities, computer modelling also plays a central role – and some of its work revolves around sensor technology for vehicle and trackside condition monitoring, and the use of big data as a means of boosting safety standards.

The IRR is a UKRRIN Centre of Excellence and will be the conduit for a £30 million project to develop rolling stock that lasts longer, is more energy efficient, and less costly to maintain. We believe the UKRINN will be a game changer for the industry. But the IRR also has considerable prior experience of important, funded research projects that explore the latest technology and materials science.

One such example involves bogies made from recycled carbon fibre, which could lead to a 50% weight loss – resulting in a huge reduction in track wear, and energy and maintenance costs. Fibre optic sensors can also be inserted to provide embedded condition monitoring.

The IRR – as a contributor to the EU’s multi-faceted Shift2Rail programme – has also explored ways in which carbon fibre bogie frames and other key components could be fabricated using 3D printing technology, making a far greater range of designs and shapes feasible.

London’s £14.8 billion Crossrail Elizabeth line becomes operational in December 2018 and will carry some 200 million passengers a year.

The IRR’s contribution has included the development of software that enables operators to simulate a wide variety of scenarios and predict what maintenance actions will be required, all in order to keep the trains running reliably.

The IRR has also been involved in the EU’s SUSTRAIL (the sustainable freight railway) project, developing freight trains that can match the high speeds of their passenger equivalents – ultimately leading to huge capacity gains on the tracks.
The UK’s historically smaller loading gauges – tunnel, bridge and platform height and width – do not currently make Continental-style double decker carriages feasible, but the IRR is conceptualising trains with no bogies, with all-electric power delivered directly to the wheels. Space and weight savings would mean that the floors could be lowered, making a second deck a practical proposition.

Scientists and engineers at Huddersfield’s Institute of Railway Research and other centres are showing that they have the vision, the expertise and the resources to ensure that rail travel has a bright future – not just a shining past. 

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