The University of Southampton
Engineering and the Environment

Geotechnical transport infrastructure for the 21st century

The transport of people, goods, and utilities such as electricity, gas and water is essential to civilised life, and in turn depends on robust, reliable and affordable road, rail and distribution networks. Almost without exception, these networks are built on, in, or of the ground and therefore depend on geotechnical engineering expertise for their construction and maintenance. Research carried out by the Southampton Geomechanics Group (SGG) is creating results that are improving transport infrastructure in the UK and around the world.


Research challenge

There are many geotechnical engineering challenges associated with transport infrastructure in areas as diverse as tunnelling, railway track systems, and the stability of cuttings and embankments for roads and railways.

Pressure continues to increase efficiency and reduce costs in design, construction, operation and maintenance. Further concerns are that:

  •  our infrastructure is more intensively used and loaded than ever before, for example in the case of railways through heavier, faster and more frequent trains.
  • climate change is resulting in increased cycles of environmental stress through hotter summers and wetter winters. This causes greater cycles of vegetation and climate induced shrinkage and swelling in earthworks embankments, and more extreme loading by winds and flooding.
  • the bank of infrastructure that needs to be maintained is growing and ageing, while the number of people available to maintain it is reducing.


Since 1995, members of SGG have developed new methods of measurement and new understandings of the behaviour of infrastructure, catalysed by their involvement with a wide range of real projects. Among the first was an examination of the loads in the temporary props used to support the sidewalls of large, deep excavations during construction. A continuous monitoring system was developed for use during construction of the Jubilee Line Extension stations at Canary Wharf and Canada Water, and enhanced during work on retained cuttings for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (now HS1) in Kent.

The Hatfield rail crash in 2000 prompted the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to set up Rail Research UK. This was a consortium of seven universities led by Southampton’s Professor William Powrie, now Dean of Engineering and the Environment, and was backed by funding of £7million. Since the establishment of RRK in 2003, Southampton’s researchers have developed extensive new knowledge of railway infrastructure, in particular ballasted track and associated earthworks such as embankments and cuttings.

Our solution

The University of Southampton’s Geomechanics Group (SGG) has led the development of an enhanced, science-based framework for understanding the behaviour of geotechnical transport infrastructure through monitoring, modelling and analysis. Research at Southampton has led to substantial savings in build, maintenance and operational costs, the implementation of effective remediation and management strategies, and significantly improved performance.

Rail research continues through several projects including TRACK21, a £3.1million EPSRC programme grant for the Universities of Southampton, Birmingham, Nottingham and key industry players; a Strategic University Partnership with Network Rail on Future Infrastructure Systems, and Engineering Doctorate (EngD) students sponsored by HS1 and HS2 investigating aspects of the performance of railway track systems at train speeds up to 400 km/hour.

Our impact

The monitoring, analysis and modelling techniques developed by SGG are being used around the world to identify the underlying causes of geotechnical problems, find solutions and help transport infrastructure managers to come up with effective strategies to resolve them.

Southampton Geomechanics Group has worked with Mott MacDonald to develop and refine design methods for concrete piles used to stabilise infrastructure slopes. One recent application was the Cannons Park embankment on the Jubilee Line, just a few months before the London 2012 Olympics. Implementing the research, Mott MacDonald used smaller diameter piles for repairs which were faster to install and saved £1.5 million.

Research into how climate and the presence of nearby trees and other vegetation can influence the seasonal shrink/swell movement and stability of cuttings and embankments has informed the strategy of both Network Rail and London Underground Limited in managing trackside vegetation. This has led to savings in excess of £1 million over two years and a significant reduction in train delays.

SGG developed monitoring systems, and analyses with Mott MacDonald, to assess the performance for a twin-walled cofferdam at a pumping station on the River Ouse in East Anglia for Costain, at the time the largest excavation in Europe. It enabled the project to be completed safely and on time, saving £15 million and mitigating serious flood risks.

When the ‘Javelin’ trains were first introduced onto HS1, they suffered from poor ride quality in tunnels and caused interference with points monitoring systems. Members of SGG, together with staff from the Network Rail wheel-rail interface team, switches and crossings manufacturer Vossloh Cogifer, train manufacturer Hitachi and train operating company South-Eastern, carried out field measurements over a six month period which identified the cause of the problems and proposed modifications to the wheel profile and suspension settings that solved them.

Expertise from Southampton is helping to drive the intelligent design, management, remediation and maintenance of railway infrastructure systems; providing the rail industry and others with tools to reduce the costs of maintenance and improve safety, and ensure that our transport infrastructure is resilient, sustainable, affordable and future-proof.



Southampton Geomechanics Group



Key Publications

Research Staff

Related Projects

Related ProjectsStatusType
Track 21 - Railway Track for the 21st CenturyActiveOther
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