Thinking up solutions to Britain's poor railway system

Can academics succeed where successive governments, a huge nationalised industry and many otherwise successful entrepreneurs have failed, by making the trains run on time? Keith Madelin, professor of civil engineering at Birmingham University in England, briskly dismisses talk of targeted improvements in efficiency. ‘You just can’t do that,” he insists.

The director of Rail Research UK, a newly formed consortium of 12 departments from seven universities, is understandably wary about making extravagant claims.
‘We’re a small cog in a big machine,” says Madelin. ‘Our challenge is to build up a close relationship with the railway industry and show that we can make a difference. Ultimately, we believe we have the potential to save the industry a lot of money while improving reliability and safety.”

He pauses while the staccato public address system at New Street station drones on. Birmingham is extraordinarily busy, at the hub of the rail network. There are times when the same voice issues a seemingly endless stream of apologies. Nothing could better illustrate Madelin’s point that the UK is running its rail system ‘close to the knife-edge”.

‘There has been a crying need for an independent, university-based research facility,” says Madelin, who is confident his team can cover most railway issues. ‘They’re mainly engineers, but there are also economists and psychologists involved.”

At Leeds University, for instance, psychologists are looking at whether modern technology is putting too much stress on train drivers and signallers, while economists are studying the industry’s cost-effectiveness. Researchers at Imperial College are investigating ways of improving safety on trains involved in collisions, while those at Loughborough are studying the effectiveness of carriage wheels.

Mechanical engineers at Manchester Metropolitan are researching vehicle dynamics, and metallurgists at Sheffield are looking into the sort of cracks in the track that caused the Hatfield train crash. Southampton also has one department doing track work. Another is investigating noise and vibration issues and yet another is analysing the role of rail in an integrated transport policy.

And Birmingham? It, too, has three departments doing railway-related research: electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and metallurgy. Two of its PhD students have spent a lot of time by the side of the line near Leominster, Herefordshire, in the dead of night when there’s no chance of being struck by a passing train. They’re trying to find a way of strengthening track without having to disrupt services in the process.

‘The majority of the network we’re using now was finished in the 1920s,” Madelin explains. ‘The laying technique was to level off the ground, put in ballast and sleepers and then top it with track. There are places where water can seep through the ballast, saturating the ground and so allowing the track to move up and down so that it twists. The answer has been to stick more stones on. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long.”

So the researchers are experimenting with more durable techniques: injecting cement slurry, and inserting drainage pipes or steel mesh. ‘This research is at a very early stage,” says Madelin. ‘There’s a lot of work to be done to make any of these techniques cost-effective.” -

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