Keeping safety on track

Cutting edge research at Newcastle University is helping to forge the rail industry’s future, as Peter Jackson reports.

Rail disasters are mercifully few and far between, which made the Ladbroke Grove rail crash in 1999 when 31 people were killed and more than 520 injured so shocking.

There were lessons to be learned and the Cullen Inquiry into the crash made no fewer than 89 recommendations, of which number 57 dealt with the strengthening the joints in aluminium vehicles.

This led to a three-year research project – Aljoin - by NewRail, Newcastle University’s centre for railway research which resulted in findings which have improved the crashworthiness of rail vehicles.

Director of NewRail Prof Mark Robinson explains: “Aljoin was a very important project for the rail builders, particularly Bombardier Transportation. This project provided new standards for aluminium welding and body shell construction that prevented weld unzipping. It was a landmark project. It has won prizes for safety in railways and it has been highlighted by the European Commission as a project of significance and excellence and it resulted in new standards which is having an impact today.’’

This is just one of the many research projects undertaken by NewRail, which claims to be the leading European university-based centre for railway research, engineering, testing and consultancy, receiving more EU funding than any other European university.

Set up in 1994 in Sheffield, amid fears that the demise of British Rail would mean an end to rail research, it was transferred to Newcastle 10 years later and since then staff numbers have tripled to 39 and include engineers from throughout Europe. It has an Industry Research Strategy Group, made up of “the great and the good of the industry in Europe’’ to ensure its research meets the needs of the industry.

“I see ourselves as being the research source for important railway projects,’’ says Prof Robinson.

The team has also been working on Secure Metro in the wake of terrorist attacks on metro systems to develop blast and fire safe metro vehicles. Details are still under wraps but the project has looked at whether putting a glazing film on the windows would reduce the shrapnel effect in the event of a blast and whether heavy items such as speakers could be secured to the main structure to prevent them becoming dangerous projectiles themselves.

It has also found that while carriages which are fully open from end to end have proved popular with passengers and manufacturers as a design solution, they are not necessarily ideal in an explosion as they allow the blast wave to travel the full length of the vehicle. A possible solution is to install the partial windshields in the gangways at the sides of seats which go some way to dividing the carriage.

NewRail has also worked in partnership with Bombardier Transportation and AP&M to design and manufacture a lightweight driver’s cab that meets strict crashworthiness standards. The result, the DE-LIGHT Transport cab uses advanced composite materials sandwiched together that can withstand the force of a collision supported by lightweight  energy absorbers made from honeycombed aluminium. It is designed in a three stage modular construction to allow easy assembly, maintenance, repair and replacement.

The demand for greater fuel efficiency in the rail industry is driving a demand for more lightweight railway vehicles and Prof Robinson predicts that this will be an area of increasing research.

He says: “We try to work at the forefront of technologies, just ahead of the rail industry and the industry now is starting to move seriously into the use of lightweight materials and one of the forthcoming projects is to look at certification of these new materials – it’s a real issue for the industry.

“The industry is very experienced with steel and if you get a grade of steel you know what its performance characteristics are going to be but if you start choosing a new material then the industry gets quite nervous about it – how do they qualify it, what are the quality control procedures, how do you check it’s actually fit for purpose.

“In the future, before these new materials are used in structural components, there has to be some serious work done on certification for use in the rail sector. It’s to reassure a rather conservative industry that these new materials can be used.’’

Part of NewRail is its Freight and Logistics Group which is researching ways of supporting a shift of freight from road to rail.

“We have two projects on this at the moment, one we are leading which is Spectrum which is looking at what kind of goods are going to be moved in the future and then looking at what kind of vehicles and what kind of service pattern is needed to achieve that,’’ says Prof Robinson.

Also furthering the drive to make railways even greener is the CleanER-D (Clean European Rail Diesel) project, part funded by the EU, to develop, improve and integrate emission reduction technologies for diesel locomotives and rail vehicles. Its target is to bring emission levels within strict new EU limits. NewRail has worked with 26 partners from all over Europe on this.

Apart from its laboratory testing facilities in Newcastle, NewRail has a test centre which it operates in collaboration with Barrow Hill Roundhouse heritage site near Chesterfield. The site has more than a mile of running track, maintenance pits, a wide range of vehicles and carriages, engineering workshops and high performance computer modelling facilities which can be used for research.

“We can change ballast, we can put new tracks in, we can look at rail welding, we can look at adhesion problems between the wheel and the rail. All types of practical activity you could want to do on a railway site we can do there,’’ says Prof Robinson.

However, when NewRail comes to the final testing phase of Secure Metro - blowing up a prototype carriage, donated by Madrid Metro - it will do so at the health and safety laboratories in Buxton.

Much of what NewRail does is highly technical although the results of its research can and do determine the future of the rail industry worldwide. But a new programme it launched this summer is having an immediate impact.

This summer NewRail welcomed 43 European undergraduate students as well as six Newcastle University students to RailNewcastle, an intensive EU funded summer school in Rail and Logistics. The brainchild of NewRail’s Dr Marin Marinov, himself a Bulgarian, who studied in Portugal, it brought together some of the leading research talent in European rail.

The students attended 25 lectures given by NewRail staff and nine other European transport experts, they worked on research projects on rail related projects and made technical visits to Tyne and Wear Metro depot and Beamish Museum.

Anna Fraszcyk, a research assistant who works with Dr Marinov, said: “It went really well, the students were very happy and really enjoyed their stay. We had, for example, people from Greece studying supply chain and people from Portugal studying rail-related subjects and they could see the benefits and think they can use what they learnt in the future.’’

Prof Robinson added: “It was to give them a flavour of what happens in the rail industry and the sort of things they can look forward to doing if they pursue a career in the rail industry. It was very well received and we have funding to repeat it next year.’’

Buoyed by the success of Rail Newcastle, NewRail is developing other educational courses and next year will be introducing a Masters in Rail Freight and Logistics. NewRail sees these programmes as working in partnership with its research projects to frame tomorrow’s railways.

Prof Robinson said: “Our research projects, Rail Newcastle and other educational projects are all about developing and securing a great future for the international rail industry.’’