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These five technologies could transform our railways

Professional Engineering

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

‘Leaves on the line’ – if any explanation for delayed trains is guaranteed to cause frustrated tutting and eye-rolling on station platforms around the country, this is it.

One day, however, it could be a thing of the past thanks to an innovative new project. The scheme, which involves trains spraying rails with water, is one of 24 to receive funding from the Department for Transport’s First of a Kind competition. Each of the projects will receive between £250,000 and £350,000 to develop systems and technology to make the rail network “more efficient, greener and cleaner”.

Here are five of the technologies that could transform our railways.

No more leaves on the line

Probably the most appealing project for angry commuters, CoCatalyst is developing technology to improve braking in slippery rail conditions caused by track-side leaf fall in autumn. The UK rail industry reportedly spends over £50m every year trying to deal with the problem, which causes low track adhesion and means drivers have to brake earlier when approaching stations and accelerate more gently when leaving them.

Heavy rain often solves the problem, even in autumn, so CoCatalyst hope to replicate the natural solution. The technology will spray “small amounts” of water from trains onto the track when slippery rails are detected. The system reportedly works well on a test train, and the project now aims to extend the work by proving the benefits on a passenger service train.

Wall of (less) sound

Potentially welcome news for people living next to noisy railways, 4Silence is developing the WHISWall. The company’s technology uses diffraction to ‘bend’ noise, such as the rumble of traffic, upwards and away from people’s ears.

The WHISWall is a 1m concrete wall with a diffracting element, or resonator, made of weathering steel. It reportedly reduces noise by 8dB, comparable to a much taller 3m noise barrier.  

Hydrogen on track

They probably won’t be suitable for all applications, but hydrogen fuel cells could be a key new technology for operators running on certain parts of the network. Led by the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education with partners including Porterbrook, the Hydroflex project aims to develop the UK’s first operating hydrogen train.

The project hopes to do mainline testing in late 2019 and early 2020. The programme will gather evidence and data from hydrogen fuel cells and battery technology deployed on a converted electric train.

Internet of Trains

Another ‘network’ runs alongside 90% of Network Rail’s infrastructure – fibre-optic cables. The Spectrail project hopes to tap into the wires to “sense almost anything, anywhere” near train tracks around the country.

Fibre-optic acoustic sensing will use central processors to ‘listen’ to 70km stretches of track, by observing minute changes in light transmission caused by vibrations through the cables. The technique could “detect and localise” noises caused by events including wheel flats, cable theft and trespass, according to AP Sensing.

No more ‘boots on ballast’

Inspections, surveys and incident response rely on thousands of workers walking along rail infrastructure every year, putting staff at risk and causing massive costs. AmeyVTOL hopes that drones could help save £1bn every five years by automating previously manual tasks. The company’s project aims to demonstrate a Beyond Visual Line of Sight drone system, capable of surveys, inspections and examinations. The project will include automated flight path planning and operation on a hybrid drone design, reportedly capable of six-times the range of equivalent UAVs.


Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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