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The University of Southampton

University of Southampton wins funding for research to reduce the environmental impacts of rail travel

Published: 5 July 2021

The University of Southampton is one of several organisations to receive funding from the Government’s £9 million “First of a Kind” competition to make the railways cleaner, greener and more passenger-friendly.

Transport is currently the leading source of climate warming emissions in the UK and electric railways have a major part to play in reaching “Net Zero”.

However, the construction of electric railway infrastructure involves energy and materials that give off emissions in the process, known as “embedded carbon”.

Most masts today are made from energy-intensive galvanised steel on steel pile foundations. Whilst electric railways have a short carbon payback period, reducing carbon in construction can reduce this further.

The railway masts are used to support cables that provide electricity to trains, known as Overhead-Line Equipment (OLE).

The project aims to research and develop new masts made from advanced composite materials that have negative embedded carbon, replacing carbon-intensive steel production.

The lighter mast would also mean smaller foundations, reducing installation time and cost, as well as volumes of high-carbon steel foundations.

The mast will also have in-built sensors for internal structural monitoring making maintenance less labour intensive, compared to the manual checks carried out today. This would enable pre-emptive maintenance, rather than performing maintenance upon failure or prompted by regular manual checks.

The project proposal attracted the support of Network Rail’s Research and Development team, and it is hoped the prototype masts will be tested on a Network Rail site pending further approvals.

The University’s School of Engineering will develop foundation designs to reduce the use of costly and CO2-intensive steel and concrete, and speed up installation.

Professor David Richards, Head of the School of Engineering at the University of Southampton, said: “

“In the UK, we will need to electrify thousands of kilometres of rail track to meet our 2050 decarbonisation target. This project will offer a significant reduction in the mass of the support masts, but the real benefits lie in the cumulative positive effects of reducing the size of the foundations, cutting the cost and embedded carbon involved in reducing transport emissions.

“Decarbonisation of transport infrastructure and the way we use it, to help avert the climate catastrophe, is a major goal and we are proud to contribute to this project.”

The First of a Kind competition is focused on developing pioneering technology and exceptional ideas that can improve journeys for travellers, encourage passengers back onto trains and reduce the environmental impacts of rail.

Now in its fifth round, the competition was open to inventors from across the nation.

Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said “I am delighted to announce the winners of the 2021 First of a Kind competition. These winners will hopefully play a role in putting passengers at the centre of our railways as we build back better from COVID-19.

“The competition always throws up surprises and the ideas shown today could transform how we travel in future.”

Simon Edmonds, Deputy Executive Chair and Chief Business Officer, Innovate UK, said “As we move ever closer to getting past the pandemic, passengers are returning to the railway. To give them ever greater confidence that rail is safe and sustainable, we called upon UK innovators to come up with fresh ideas.

“Yet again the response has been fantastic. Not only will passengers benefit from these great innovations, but business prospects are bright in this sector too.”

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