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Rail tracks embedded with fiber optics to boost safety

23 Oct 2013

UK Institute of Railway Research project demos "smart", modular, all-steel tracks.

Conventional rail tracks are laid by fixing rails to sleepers laid on a ballast trackbed. Now, a team of researchers at the UK’s University of Huddersfield are developing modular, all-steel track sections that can be laid quickly and embedded with fiber optic technology, to provide instant safety alerts. They say the approach could lead to “massive cost savings and advantages in safety and efficiency”.

The Institute of Railway Research (IRR), headed by Professor Simon Iwnicki, is based at the University and is one of the partners in a €15 million, four-year project funded by the EU under its Seventh Framework Programme. Capacity4Rail aims to ensure that railways will continue to meet Europe’s transport needs, with development aims including reducing maintenance, more resilient and easily repairable points (switches), and higher-speed freight wagons.

There are 47 partners, including major technology companies and European universities, and the University of Huddersfield’s IRR is working on a project entitled “modular integrated design of new concepts for infrastructure”. One of the IRR’s tasks will be to help in the development and design requirements of new track systems.

Smart approach

The Institute’s Head of Research, Dr Yann Bezin, commented, “We are looking at more efficient designs and methods of building a track, in a modular way rather than by laying down ballast layers and then individual sleepers and putting the rails on top. That takes a long time and requires very expensive and heavy machinery. Modular concepts allow track to be brought pre-assembled in sections for a quick installation.

“A big problem is vertical support of the track,” explained Bezin. “Currently you get deterioration from one sleeper to the other or the ballast degrades and some sleepers become unsupported. A concrete sleeper is the norm, but we have studied a steel track system that uses steel beams. This gives consistency of support and better control of dynamic forces.”

Bezin added that the construction of modular track sections in the factory would mean that they could be pre-equipped with smart technology. “We could make the track system intelligent. Fiber optics running along the rail would enable a network operator to know from the signal whether or not there is an unusual deformation, an indication of fatigue cracking or some other problem”. Such a condition monitoring system would simplify maintenance, adding to the efficiency gains from modular track construction.


The IRR will receive more than €470,000 for its contribution to Capacity4Rail. In addition to work on modular track sections, the Institute’s researchers, who are based in specially equipped labs at the University of Huddersfield, will study new designs for the construction of switches and crossings. The IRR will be investigating resilient new materials for crossings and switches, working with the metallurgist Jay Jaiswal, formerly of Tata Steel, who has been appointed a visiting professor at the University of Huddersfield.

The Institute will also be working with major companies such as Systra, which has constructed all of France’s and half of the world’s high-speed lines. The Capacity4Rail research will build on the findings of previous projects that the IRR has been closely involved with, such as the EU-backed Innotrack, which has investigated many of the technical challenges posed by the EC’s goal of doubling rail passenger traffic and tripling freight traffic by 2020.

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor tooptics.org.

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