Tracking the Future for the Rail Industry
With 140,000 miles of rail track in the United States, a lot can go wrong. From studying metal fatigue and railway buckling to mitigating track bed deterioration and worn-out, rotted crossties, the Center for Railway Research (CRR) at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) helps the rail industry operate more safely, reliably and efficiently.
Through its use of emerging technologies, the CRR’s research is aimed at making rails, and all their associated components, last longer.
Established in 2012, the CRR receives most of its research funding from the Transportation Technology Center, Inc., and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration. CRR is one of three Association of American Railroads (AAR) affiliated labs in the United States.
Though rail is already the most fuel efficient and environmentally friendly way to move freight overland, the industry is always looking for ways to be more efficient. For example, according to the AAR, “average rail rates (measured by inflation-adjusted revenue per ton-mile) were 45 percent lower in 2016 than in 1981.”
“We continually face the challenge of lowering the cost of moving goods,” says CRR Director David Allen. “The obvious answer is to make a bigger rail car and put more goods on that rail car. But when you do that, you add more weight to the rails and the entire rail structure, and you cause it to degrade and fail more rapidly. So there is a cost associated with adding tonnage to the rails.”
Allen calls rail track “a very complicated structure.”
With a diverse engineering background that includes pavements, metals, aerospace engineering and computational mechanics, Allen is ideally suited to increasing the lifespan of rails. “If you can develop a physics-based model that can predict crack growth, for example, you can reduce how often you need to grind rails, which will reduce the cost of operation.”
Research projects currently being conducted by the CRR include:
- Fatigue cracking in rails — researchers subject rails to hundreds of thousands of load cycles and focuses on the experimental observation of fatigue cracking in rails with the use of phased array, ultrasonic transducers.
- Predicting lateral bucking in rails — the center has developed computational algorithms to help predict when rail buckling will occur so that interventions can be employed to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences when that happens.
- Developing micro wind turbines — this study has developed on-board micro wind turbines capable of harvesting energy so that trains can operate more efficiently.
- Modeling load-inducted intersection failures — this project aims to lessen the number of derailments at rail intersections.
Allen partners with researchers across Texas A&M University with expertise in various fields of study in order to complete the wide-ranging projects conducted by the CRR. As one might expect, graduate students play a key role in center activities.
Alex Trevino, a mechanical engineering master’s student, has been working on a wind turbine project for the last two years. “Producing energy to recharge sensor batteries with onboard wind turbines is a new technology, and I am fortunate to get the opportunity to work on the project. The research will help me in my future studies and my career.” Trevino says.
As our population densities change, Allen predicts that the rail industry will continue to thrive with increased freight and passenger routes; and high-speed trains will become more commonplace within the United States.
“Transportation is all integrated,” Allen says. “TTI helps improve safety and reduce costs with all modes of transportation, and the CRR is one small but important part of that effort.”