Research & Development

R & D

The following is reproduced from a booklet titled "Research & Development".

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British Rail: Research and Development Division

The Research and Development Division generates technological innovations in rail transport providing technical and scientific advice and information to help in formulating, developing and undertaking the activities of the British Railways Board. The programme of research spans a complete spectrum from the invention and assessment of possible future transport systems, the development of specific projects with medium-term objectives to the support of current operations by problem-solving on a day-to-day basis. A small proportion of work is carried out on a contract basis for private industry.

The majority of the laboratory facilities and of the 900 staff are located at the Railway Technical Centre in Derby. This is particularly beneficial in ensuring that close liaison is maintained with the mechanical engineering design and development organisation and with the railway manufacturing workshops that are also located in Derby.

This booklet indicates the range of techniques and facilities available for research. The topics selected also indicate the range of experience and skills available within the Division which have led to the world-wide recognition of its excellence as a centre of research into guided ground transportation.


Track is the heart of the modern railway. The commercial need to run faster passenger services, heavier freight trains and more intensive commuter services combine to make the already high cost of maintaining the permanent way even higher. Faster passenger services during the day often result in the slower freight trains having to be scheduled to run at night, resulting in even less time being available for maintenance work.

There is, therefore, considerable incentive to improve the efficiency of mechanised track maintenance equipment and to ensure that it is used in the most productive way. Studies into these problems have been pursued using the facilities of the Research Division's Track Laboratory for a number of years.

The development of track construction methods which virtually eliminate maintenance costs has been a major project at Derby and has resulted in the highly successful PACT (PAved Concrete Track) design. This system, which has been installed under the supervision of engineers from Derby in Spain, New Zealand and at a number of locations in Great Britain, uses an accurately formed concrete base to support the rails.

Because of the drying time required for concrete, the PACT system is more suitable for applications where new lines are being constructed or when a line can be taken out of service for a number of days. Where traffic can only be stopped for a short time, an alternative low maintenance track system using asphalt as a base has been designed and a test length is in daily service undergoing long term evaluation.

Other forms of ballastless track under investigation includes the use of pre-cast concrete slabs.

Work on conventional track systems has included studies of sleeper and rail fastening design, metallurgical investigations into rail steels and welding and the fracture behaviour of rail steels. A dropped weight test facility is available and measurement of dynamic strains due to wheel flats can be made, together with propagation measurement of stress waves down the rails.

Considerable work has been carried out into the measurement of wheel/rail forces and their consequences for component life and track degradation. Analytical work has covered the transmission of ground-borne vibration.

The performance of track when guiding vehicles round curves and the behaviour of vehicles during curving is of major interest and a new method of predicting curving behaviour has been devised using a load measuring wheel. Associated with this is the TRIM mobile laboratory which measures track geometry and which has worked in Holland and Belgium.

A product of research now in daily service is the High Speed Track Recording Coach. This vehicle can he attached to any Inter-City train in routine service and measures accurately the key parameters of track geometry throughout the journey at speeds up to 125 mph (200 km/h). The results recorded enable track maintenance to be planned on the more efficient basis of actual need rather than weekly or monthly routine.

Improvements are also being sought to the present systems for ultrasonic detection of flaws in metal components, particularly in rails and to improve the performance of BR's ultrasonic test train.

Other work in the field of track research includes the behaviour of ballast and acoustic studies related to noise from track maintenance machinery and the development of track-side warning equipment to improve the safety of men working on the line.


British Railways, like most of its counterparts throughout the world, has inherited a large number of structures, bridges, tunnels, station buildings, for example, many of which were built over a century ago. Bridges, in particular, are being used today to carry trains whose weight and speed far exceed the wildest expectations of the original designer who in most cases based his design on experience and empirical methods because the science of structural analysis was not available.

The Research and Development Division has considerable expertise in assessing the performance of bridge structures ranging from masonary bridges and viaducts of considerable age through to modern steel and concrete spans. Test equipment is available to explore the performance of steel girders and finite element analysis of structures has been a special study.

The special problems of maintenance and refurbishing which can arise have been the subject of a number of studies. Metal structures require protection against the weather with painting being the traditional solution. Improved painting methods have been developed, including a special technique for the Forth Railway Bridge. Aluminium spray techniques have been devised for new bridges which, together with a single coat of paint, can provide a more cost effective solution than paint alone. The potential of plastics films for bridge protection is also being evaluated.

The Division has developed an efficient 'spray-on' plastic coating technique which is being widely used on British Rail to waterproof bridge decks.

Work is under way on the development of a special vehicle to carry out high speed structure gauging similar in concept to the high speed track geometry recording coach.

The testing of components for buildings is undertaken and the Division has been involved, for example, with the refurbishing of stations on the Merseyside suburban railway system serving Liverpool. This scheme has included the use of plastics for architectural purposes.


Competition from airways and motorways, for both passenger and freight business, continues to produce a demand for shorter journey times and, particularly on the Inter-City routes, British Rail has considerable evidence that shorter journey times attract more passengers. The Research & Development Division is very active in proposing, developing and testing ways of increasing not only maximum speeds, but also average speeds.

The essential ingredients of railway vehicles include the body structure, bogie, wheel and suspension design, aerodynamics, wheel/rail interaction and manufacturing and finishing techniques.

In recent years, British Rail's research has been epitomised by the Advanced Passenger Train project - the train specially developed to make the best possible use of our existing railway and energy resources. The key to the performance of this train is its ability to curve much faster than conventional trains on existing railway lines, very few of which contain extensive stretches of straight track. This ability produces considerably shorter journey times.

In the first instance, the Division took a fundamental fresh look at railway dynamics. Following a good deal of laboratory and experimental work on a mobile test rig, the POP train was built, hauled by conventional locomotives, whilst evaluating bogie designs and body tilt mechanisms. APT-E (experimental), a 150 mph (250 km/h) mobile laboratory was then constructed and ended a highly successful record-breaking three year test programme in 1976 by which time it had proved and demonstrated, on both main lines and the special research test track, all the principles necessary for British Railways Board to approve the construction of three passenger carrying prototype trains. These will enter service in 1979 and a sizeable fleet of trains will subsequently be built.

Much expertise on suspension design has been accumulated and the theoretical analysis techniques have developed to an advanced stage. New techniques continue to be developed and any kind of suspension can be analysed and tested. The heart of the testing arrangements consists of a very powerful electro-hydraulic testing system. This can cope with simple component tests, suh-assemblies and complete vehicles. Life tests, and resonance tests can also be undertaken, and new designs recently dealt with include the Mark III coach, the class 56 freight locomotive, and the High Speed Train.

A number of laboratory vehicles are available for track testing, equipped with modern computer systems. Extensive automated resonance test facilities exist in the laboratories and this enables the Division to offer a comprehensive service on suspension design.

Structural designs and development techniques cover use of different materials and construction methods. Expertise is available for both body shells and bogies. Comprehensive stress analysis capability is also available, dealing, for example, with load case derivation for new bogies, etc., together with extensive structural testing facilities.

A surface coatings section has developed low stress paints, and other methods of improving the life of coach protection, and some coaches are being made with zinc coated steel, the zinc being alloyed in as an integrated part of the surface area.

The use of plastics for coach components, such as roof tanks and seats, is being studied and developed.

Traction & Braking

The ability to make trains go faster, or to haul heavier loads, requires comparable developments in braking technology if the system is to remain safe.

Research into the problems of adhesion, a crucial parameter in any railway, has been a major project during the life of the department and continues to be so. Fundamental research into the mechanism of adhesion between steel rail and steel wheel, particularly into the surface physics involved, together with research into the cause of poor adhesion has been supported by development work on systems designed to improve adhesion. These have included vehicle borne equipment and track-mounted applicators. Several different chemicals have been tried to improve adhesion, but the most successful development to date is the high speed sander. High speed photography of the sanding process enabled the system to be designed to ensure that the sand penetrates to the precise point where it gives the most benefit.

A tribology train has been designed to carry out adhesion level surveys whilst running on main lines and to assess the performance of adhesion improvement systems.

In the vital area of braking, the Division has developed the hydrokinetic brake system used on APT, evaluated the performance of a wide range of friction brake materials, investigated composition brake blocks and is carrying out further work on the phosphorous content. of cast iron brake blocks to lower wear rates, and decrease sparking. These activities are supported by a range of general purpose test rigs, facilities for thermal analysis, fatigue studies and a large brake dynamometer.

Electric traction has considerable attraction for railway operators and the Division has considerable experience in heavy current electronics and thyristor control, particularly static inverters for induction motor control. Considerable benefits are to be obtained from the use of induction motors for rail traction and the TAIM (Tubular Axle Induction Motor) project is generating world-wide interest. This motor actually fits into the axle of a rail vehicle and eliminates much of the gearing and electrical equipment associated with conventional motors. Its initial application is expected to be in commuter trains where every wheel throughout the train could be powered and where the motor's very efficient braking action will also be exploited.

The use of lightweight electric batteries offer considerable advantages to many areas of transport, including railways. If high enough energy outputs from reasonably sized batteries can be obtained, electric locomotives or commuter trains could operate on non-electrified branch lines away from the main electrified route. Derby is one of the centres working on the development of the Sodium-Sulphur battery. A satisfactory and safe design of cell has been produced.

The modern highly developed diesel engine requires no significant research effort, but other forms of thermal cycle are the subject of study and considerable experience of gas turbine operation was gained from the experimental APT.

The well-equipped vehicles laboratory contains a number of special test facilities, including a large mechanical transmission test rig.


Electrification will continue to have a major role to play in the development of British railways and a considerable amount of work is being carried out within the Research and Development Division to improve the performance and reliability of the existing equipment, reduce the cost of its maintenance and to ensure that future requirements for high speed electric railways can be satisfied.

Significant research into the dynamic behaviour of both pantographs and catenery systems has been carried out and will continue to be an area of major activity. This work is vital to solving the problems of collecting power at higher speeds from existing overhead systems and in developing future systems. Experience is also available on novel systems such as contactless energy collection.

Work to improve the efficiency of existing systems of current collection includes examination of thermal problems associated with connections and cables, together with studies aimed at improving the performance of insulators, particularly where high pollution conditions are encountered. Proposals have been made for new types of insulation to give long, maintenance-free life. Considerable cost savings are expected to be made on new electrification schemes from work carried out at the Railway Technical Centre into methods of significantly reducing the clearances required between electrified lines and structures such as bridge decks and tunnel roofs.

A major facility available to the electrical research team at Derby is the dynamically scaled overhead line installation on a research test track. This equipment enables test trains running at speeds of, say, 90 mph (145 km/h) to produce in the equipment being tested the effects of running at twice the speed.

Facilities for recording and observing the behaviour of overhead systems are included in a special test coach which can run up to 150 mph (240 km/h).

Special expertise has been developed for examining and suppressing the interference with signalling and telecommunications circuits that can arise when using electric traction, particularly from thyristor control circuits.

A computer-based automatic design and draughting facility is available for the design of overhead structures in connection with electrification works.

Control & Signalling

Modern British signalling practice is the result of more than a century of continuous evolutionary development and represents possibly the simplest and best signalling system in use in the world today.

Nevertheless, continual efforts are being made to enhance the capability of the system and to introduce new technologies in the interest of cost effectiveness and better railway operation. The large power signal boxes which characterise the British system contain vast numbers of relays produced by a labour intensive process and hence liable to escalate in cost and become difficult to obtain as industry switches to solid state electronics. Consequently, the Division is developing a microprocessor-based system of similar integrity and reliability as a possible replacement for these large relay installations.

Work is also being conducted to extend the use of the train describer. Most new train describers nowadays are computer based and there is a very large range of enhancements which can be visualised for such equipment. One such scheme now being implemented at Glasgow is called Junction Optimisation Technique (JOT) and gives signal box staff real time advice as to how best to deal with the trains when departures from plan have occurred, this being a far more flexible and powerful technique than manual methods based on variations to a fixed printed plan. An even more powerful version of this real time scheduling system known as TRACE (Train Regulation Advisory Control Equipment) capable of dealing with a multiplicity of problems over a dispersed geographical area, is being developed.

Cab signalling systems have been developed based on track to train communication by means of track conductors. Although designed primarily for BR conditions, this system can be adapted to any other signalling system. Pilot schemes of cab signalling on BR have provided a wealth of experience of electronics on trains and this is now being exploited in the design of BRATO (British Rail Automatic Train Operation). Several other administrations already have ATC schemes for the specialist conditions obtaining on underground railways and single purpose mineral lines, but something more sophisticated is necessary for the generalities of operation of BR. A pilot scheme is in course of development for the Wilmslow area near Manchester, but already a battery propelled test train is running automatically on a test line.

Eventually, the BRATO system will be enhanced to receive instructions from the JOT and TRACE types of scheduling system so that automatic running to pre-determined optimal parameters can be achieved.

A simpler form of automatic running has been produced for the remote control of locomotives hauling coal trains whilst discharging coal in power station hopper houses.

The track circuit plays an important part in present-day signalling practice, but problems arise in electrified areas when it is desired to use continuously welded track. A jointless track circuit, suitable for use under such conditions, is being developed.

One useful device for passing information from track to train, the transponder, has been used as a basis for a driver aid system for APT. The capability of the APT to run faster than normal trains through curves makes it necessary to provide the driver with a display of permitted speed in his cab. The system, which is being developed in conjunction with the Engineering Departments, is a complete system embodying the normal fail-safe features expected in signalling practice. The system includes both track-mounted transponders and train-borne microprocessor equipment and is being installed throughout the West Coast Main Line between London and Glasgow, in time for the prototype APT trains. Whilst these trains will run initially at up to 125 mph (200 km/h), even higher speeds later on have not been precluded from consideration and therefore work is in progress to suggest suitable modifications to the signalling system to make such speeds feasible.

A variety of technical consultancy and survey facilities are offered in the communications field and expertise is also being obtained in the use of fibre optic developments. For free space radio Test Coach Iris and a mobile road laboratory are available for general field strength survey work and for areas where radio transmission and reception is difficult, radiating cable techniques have been evaluated and are available. For use with mobile portable radios, a direct dialling automatic system has been designed which makes it possible for any railway-owned mobile radio to communicate directly with any railway telephone or other mobile portable without the intervention of an operator.

Specialised Skills

British Rail's latest passenger trains are not only faster, but also quieter than those they are replacing. Quieter not only for the passengers, but also for people living alongside railway lines. Acoustics research at Derby has produced a much greater understanding of how the noise is generated and how it travels out from the vehicles and the skills in this area are being drawn upon to ensure that future designs of rolling stock improve the situation even further. Facilities available include routine noise analysis and the study of vibration modes generally.

Considerable experience has been gained into the aerodynamic problems associated with the operation of high speed trains, particularly the problems of aerodynamic effects in tunnels. The aerodynamics of vehicles moving at high speed close to the ground is a highly complex science.

Health and Safety at Work
Advanced techniques have been developed for the rapid identification of airborne dust particles and fibres by X-ray diffraction and electron microscopy.

Non-Destructive Testing
A wide range of components and structures can be evaluated by non-destructive testing techniques which include ultrasonics, magnetic testing and X-rays. The capability in this field ranges from small, individual assessment to the design of comprehensive systems.

Plastics Development Unit
This unit undertakes service work for railway departments and also long-term work leading to new systems involving plastics and new processes for producing plastic components. Recommendations are made and advice given in connection with the design and use of plastic components with regard to fire and flammability, etc. Composite technology is being applied to exploit the novel properties of, for example, carbon fibres.

Transport Technology Assessment
A group of transport systems specialists is available to seek out possible technical innovations which can improve the conduct of the railway business or open up new business opportunities. The activities of these specialists ensure that technological development is closely allied with business needs. Studies so far completed or in progress relate to bulk freight, general merchandise, local transport, terminals and track maintenance.

Scientific Services

A day-to-day scientific service to other railway departments is provided by six area laboratories at various locations throughout the BR network. The headquarters of this service is located in the Railway Technical Centre.

Each laboratory is well-equipped with modern facilities to carry out a wide variety of general analytical, advisory, 'trouble shooting' and inspection services. The work they do includes analysis of fuels, lubricants, waters, engine coolants effluents, pollution and quality control. They also deal with items such as the technical aspects of damage to goods in transit, forensic matters, standardisation, and specification. In addition, each laboratory can call upon specialist teams from other laboratories to deal with specific topics.

Non-Contact Suspension Systems
Expertise is available in a range of non-contact suspension systems, principally amongst which is a magnetic levitation arrangement for which a test track has been built and operation of an experimental vehicle demonstrated.

Linear Motors
Linear induction, linear synchronous and linear reluctance motors have been the subject of detailed analytical studies and a consultancy service is available. This covers technical possibilities as well as information on world-wide developments in this field.

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Last Revised: 28.06.2022 10:49
by R G Latham
© 1998