School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering


6 Jan 2022

New on-board system will allow trains to instantly detect ‘leaves on the line’

railway line with leaves on the track

Researchers are developing an on-board system for trains that can identify low adhesion hazards such as ‘leaves on the line’ as well as other issues that cause the rail equivalent of black ice.

Low adhesion is caused by the contamination of railways lines by biological, chemical and physical factors, some of which cannot be easily monitored or controlled. The estimated overall cost of low adhesion to the UK railway industry is estimated at £350 million each year (RSSB).

A minimum level of adhesion is essential for reliable braking and traction performance, especially for maintaining safety and limiting delays. Changes in adhesion can be very localised, unpredictable and transient, and poor adhesion experienced by one train may not affect following trains at the same location.

Now, engineers from Loughborough University's Wolfson School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering, the University of Sheffield and engineering firm Perpetuum have partnered to develop a new product that will detect low adhesion hot spots in real-time and create an up-to-date map of the UK’s network which shows where any hazards might be.

The map will allow network operators to react quickly to potential risks allowing services to run more safely and smoothly.

Loughborough’s Dr Chris Ward, who is leading the initiative, said: “The network is in danger of low adhesion events occurring at all times and the industry takes the impact of these incredibly seriously.

“Network Rail and the wider rail industry invests huge amounts of money in rail head cleaning, controlling flora alongside lines and forecasting where low adhesion events may occur – but it’s not an exact science and affected areas may only be discovered after an incident has taken place.

“The areas of low adhesion can often be short-lived and various types of train can react differently to the conditions.

“This new technology, by detecting low adhesion in real-time from in-service vehicles, will allow for a much more accurate picture of where hazards lie on the UK’s huge network of track, which will mean a quicker response - such as defensive driving or railhead treatment - and as a result a safer network with fewer delays.”

The detection system will use established sensing methods to collect data that will then be processed using algorithms created by Dr Ward and colleagues at Loughborough.

The experimental software should pick up small changes in how the wheels of a carriage respond to different track conditions.

As a train passes over areas of low adhesion, the vehicle moves differently compared to running over tracks with high levels of adhesion.

Signals of the movements are picked up by sensors, that are then processed and turned into an assessment of adhesion level. If required, a warning could be sent to the driver or the wider network users.

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