Is rail industry set to lightweight with composites?

Introducing exotic materials into sectors where metallic's have ruled, has always been a challenge for the composites industry. However, after making successful inroads in to the automotive sector, it has now set its sights on rail applications.

Composites have become synonymous with performance, but ultimately it is their strength-to-weight and part consolidation capability that allows the dramatic reduction in weight, and corresponding improvement of power-to-weight of a particular vehicle or system.

A recent event set up by Composites UK set out to introduce the material to the rail industry for consideration on future projects such as High Speed 2. While composites have already seen some fairly niche application in the rail industry in the UK, the composites sector is keen to build on these initially successes.

The event set out to build the confidence of engineers specifying the material, with the aim of getting those involved in rail to specify it by dispelling myths over its cost and manufacturability, as well as offering advice on design optimisation.

Future rolling stock and infrastructure in the UK is at a materials crossroad. There is genuine interest from the rail sector to lightweight, increase efficiency and better exploit materials technology. It knows it is behind the technology curve compared to other industries and want to see improvement on the new projects now coming through.

Indeed Chinese trains and rail infrastructure has seen composites applied to great benefit. Application has helped build a very high speed train system that has become the envy of much of the world.

While purchase cost is likely more expensive, lower maintenance as well as more aerodynamic designs mean that both operating and maintenance costs can be drastically reduced.

Many in the rail industry desperately want to see a move away from the box front trains that are both aerodynamically inefficient and, as one delegate described, plain ugly.

To get maximum benefit from the material the rail sector needs to adopt a collaborative approach with composite specialists early on. This is key. Composites are so variable, and tailorable, with the possible properties making it difficult and intimidating to initially specify and produce.

It is a tall order, no doubt, and a challenge for both the rail industry and composites sector. However, many feel the UK has an opportunity, and more exotic lightweight materials could greater benefit high-speed trains to make them more efficient. But, also, slower metro trains with a harsher acceleration and deceleration cycles could also benefit from lightweighting.

So, will the rail sector get all aboard, or will its uptake be delayed?

We'll watch and wait.

Author
Justin Cunningham

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There is plenty of opportunity for innovation in the rail industry. However, there is practical reason for ugly box fronted trains! If a graceful, reliable, cost-effective and aerodynamic solution could be developed for the joining and splitting of trains then we could take a big step forward.

Comment Paul Early, 24/07/2014
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