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The University of Southampton

Next stop, the future

Providing evidence-based solutions for improving rail networks

3 September 2018

The UK’s rail networks are based largely on a Victorian infrastructure, dating back to the mid-19th century. These aged tracks come with a hefty maintenance bill: Network Rail spends around half of its £9bn budget on repairs and renewal each year. Research at Southampton is set to reduce these costs and enable greener and more efficient rail travel.

Improving track for the future

Extending the interval between track repairs and maintenance by a factor of two or three would be a game-changer, says William Powrie, Professor of Geotechnical Engineering. Following the success of the prestigious £3.1m Track 21 project, William and his team have assessed techniques that rail companies could use to achieve this goal.

These results inform the £5.2m Track to the Future programme, in which researchers from the University of Southampton lead a consortium of UK institutions as they develop railway track that will cost less, last longer and improve environmental performance.

“The railway is now so busy that the time that can be given to maintenance is very short, and this is only going to get worse,” William explains. “So low-maintenance track will significantly reduce disruption.”

William and his team are now in the process of testing several advanced systems designed to tackle some of the biggest challenges posed by railways, targeting areas including geometrics, vehicle dynamics, track systems, noise and vibration.


All of our research is building the knowledge base of how the modern rail system really works.

William Powrie - Professor of Geotechnical Engineering

Complex systems

Railway tracks are complex systems: changing one factor can have unintended consequences. The Southampton team is working with all the major UK and European rail operators to address issues that arise as the nature of railways changes.

“All of our research is building the knowledge base of how the modern rail system really works: over the last few decades our railways have gone from limestone to granite ballast; timber to concrete sleepers; they have changed the shape and type of steel in the rail, and the suspension and wheel profile of the trains. All of these have a significant impact on the system that we need to understand,” William explains.

External changes can also have an impact on railway infrastructure. Stormier weather as a result of climate change, for example, has caused damage to foundations that can be very costly to railway companies. “We are developing novel ways of detecting these types of occurrences as they take place and creating better models of predicting when this type of damaging erosion could happen,” says William.

Unique contribution

Southampton delivers a unique contribution to the development of affordable, sustainable railway infrastructure engineering. “At the heart of this is our ethos of developing and applying scientific principles to the solution of real-world problems,” explains William.

The unique combination of skills at the University also gives research teams the ability to look at everything from an ageing mixed-traffic railway to a single-purpose new-build line from every angle.

Thirdly, the scale of activity and external funding gives Southampton the opportunity to lead world-changing collaborations. William explains: “This will enable us to continue to develop innovative solutions to infrastructure challenges, train the experts of the future, and drive forward improvements in affordable, sustainable infrastructure across the UK and beyond.”

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