Project aims for real-time track monitoring


An Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)-funded project aimed at developing a self-powered, wide-area track condition monitoring system for railways is planned.

Delays and disruption to the rail network as a result of failures and unplanned maintenance work can have a significant impact on the economy. Detecting damage to the track in real time is therefore vitally important to ensure the smooth running of the network and researchers at the universities of Exeter and Birmingham are working with Network Rail on an EPSRC-funded project to develop a self-powered, wide-area track condition monitoring system.

The system, which will harvest energy from the vibration of rails caused by trains passing along the line, will dramatically improve maintenance efficiency and significantly reduce the cost of managing the UK’s railway infrastructure.

Sensors embedded into the track itself will allow operators to predict faults forming anywhere in the network before they become a problem. Since the system will not need mains power or batteries for its energy supply, the cost of cabling and battery replacement will be eliminated.

Researchers decided to harvest locally available energy to power the system. Since solar energy is not always available, particularly at night and on dark winter days, the team chose to use piezoelectric devices that convert energy from vibrations on the track into electricity.

The system will consist of accelerometers, strain gauges and acoustic emission (AE) sensors, which will measure track deflection, vibration and interactions between the rail and train wheels.

The embedded sensors will be wirelessly connected to an operation and management centre, equipped with automated data processing software designed to detect signs of damage to the track.

Covering an area as vast as a national rail network with a wireless sensor network will be a significant challenge.

The project partners include three divisions from Network Rail: Track Renewals, based in Birmingham; Infrastructure Projects; and Telecom, based in Milton Keynes. The project also includes Quattro and Swiss Approval.

Once the system is developed, the researchers plan to test its suitability on a stretch of track.