Engineering and the Environment

Keeping UK railways on track

12 June 2012


Railways in the UK have never been busier. Trains are becoming faster and more frequent on our 30,000 km of track and costs are increasing. In 2009/10, around £3billion was spent on track repairs and maintenance out of Network Rail’s £12billion budget. Major challenges lie ahead. Planners are already working on the design and technical specifications of HS2, the high speed line between London and Birmingham. In addition, Network Rail needs to save £2billion a year in operating costs by 2019.

Engineers at the University of Southampton are involved in a comprehensive programme of research into our railways to come up with ways they can become more sustainable. Studying how rail track is designed, manufactured and maintained will help improve its engineering, economic and environmental performance.

One major issue being examined is ballast - the foundations on which sleepers and track are laid. Traditionally in the UK, we use crushed rock. But the material can settle, shift or break up over time and ballast pieces thrown up from the bed by very fast trains can damage on-train equipment and even the track itself. Stable, firm ground under the ballast is also essential .

Dean of Engineering and the Environment, Professor William Powrie and colleagues at Southampton, along with the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham, have been awarded £3.1million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to investigate these issues. The project Track 21 - Railway Track for the 21st century involves experienced researchers from across the Faculty including Dr Jeff Priest, Dr Antonis Zervos, Professor David Thompson and Professor John Preston.

An alternative to traditional ballast would be a continuous concrete base slab. This would be more expensive to install, but may prove more economic over time. Pilot schemes look promising but cracking may lead to problems and it is still essential to make sure the ground beneath the concrete is stable.

The University of Southampton was also part of a group which received a major EPSRC grant for rail research in 2003. Although those projects have now ended, Southampton engineers involved in railway research continue to work with other universities in the Rail Research UK Association (RRUK-A).