Railways

When trains run on time and when services aren’t interrupted by ‘leaves on the line’ or ‘ice on the track’, rail travel is the most efficient mode of transport for passengers and freight. It’s also the least stressful. Letting the ‘train take the strain’, to coin a one-time advertising slogan, beats sitting in motorway jams or queuing at airports.

German ICE high-speed train

But the rail network needs to become even better if it is to transport us speedily, sustainably and safely into the coming decades.

The UK rail industry has a clear vision for transforming the railways over the next 30 years. And the work we do is at the heart of that vision.

To satisfy existing rail customers and attract new passenger and freight business, the industry needs to improve its performance by eliminating perennial problems, cutting costs and becoming more resilient and energy-efficient.

As a world-leading research hub, the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) uses pioneering technologies to find solutions to present and potential problems that could prevent railways from running full steam ahead in the coming decades. Many of the crucial research requirements contained in the industry’s Rail Technical Strategy (RTS) is being carried out in our laboratories.

And not just in the labs: many of our inventions are being tested on trains and rail networks around the world.

Several universities conduct railway research, but we are the only one in the UK that covers the entire engineering spectrum. What is more, some of the research we do – led by Director of Research Professor Clive Roberts – is the very best of kind in the country.

Bringing together a multi-disciplinary team from across the University of Birmingham – along with other universities and national and international industry partners – our focus is to address fundamental railway engineering problems.

We combine analysis, simulation and measurement to find ways to counter difficulties in the long-term. Here are just a few of the areas of research in which we lead the way – and which are already having an important beneficial impact on the industry:

Third rail

Used typically in a mass or rapid transit system, a third rail provides electric power to a train through a rigid conductor alongside or between the rails of a track. It works well until the third rail goes out of alignment or when affected by ice and snow. We work on winter preparation with Network Rail to find effective ways to overcome problems caused by ice and snow, such as developing chemical products. We have devised a computerised in-service third rail condition monitoring system to measure the forces and movements of the third rail, which is now being tested on a Southern Railway train.

Robotic railway inspection

To aid reliability and availability of problem-identification, computer-based intelligent condition monitoring techniques need to be applied to infrastructure and rolling stock systems. We have devised a ‘robot train’ that travels round the track spotting faults. It then generates a kind of ‘Google’ map detailing the precise location of the problems. Not only is it highly effective, it is hugely cost-effective because it saves on manpower and identifies faults before they become failures. Of all the universities engaged in this type of research, ours is probably the closest to industrial development.

Points operating machine

This is being used on London Underground and the world’s longest high-speed rail line, stretching 1,400 miles across China and is known as the ‘bullet line’.

Traffic management

If your train is three minutes late getting into Birmingham’s New Street Station, it has a knock-on effect for other services. Our research focuses on advanced algorithms for train movement control and disruption management. We have developed automatic route-setting for areas of high traffic density and a method for dynamic rescheduling following service disruption of main-line railway operations.

The UK’s first hydrogen train

What started as a ‘bit of fun’, with a group of students taking part in the 'iMechE Railway Challenge'  – described as the testing ground for the next generation of world-class engineers – rapidly became something a lot more serious – and potentially revolutionary. Assembled in just six weeks, what we believe to be the UK’s first hydrogen-powered train is now the focus of a PhD student’s thesis on the feasibility of using hydrogen on the railways of the future.

Spinning rail

Our innovative approach to research includes a ‘spinning rail’, measuring about 15ft in diameter and capable of notching up a speed of 50mph, which equates to two laps per second. Combining many different technologies, this enables us to collect a raft of data very quickly in terms of novel fault detection, such as cracks in rails at high speed. Because the temperature in the lab can go to as low as -58C, it helps us with extreme weather analysis and problem-solving.

Simulators

Our Railway Research Group has developed two important simulators that are used by industry around the world to understand energy consumption and power system requirements for electric trains. The Single Train Simulator is able to generate a ‘power versus time’ profile for a train on a particular journey, which can be used to calculate energy consumption, journey time and peak power requirements. This information can then be used to inform strategies for reducing energy consumption, such as advising drivers on how best to drive the trains on particular routes. 

For diesel trains, the group is looking at how braking energy can be stored on trains for later reuse. Simulations carried out for the Department for Transport have shown that around 10-20 per cent of energy can be saved through the use of hybrid systems. 

Hybrid Traction Lab

The RRG has recently secured funding for a Hybrid Traction Lab that has been built to allow components within railway sized hybrid power-trains to be tested under realistic conditions in conjunction with the group’s simulators. Research in this area will inform system design and help to quantify and increase its effectiveness.