Public Release: 

EPSRC rail consortium shows how to cut costs and reduce delays

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Practical measures to aid landslip prevention and enhance track stability are among the improvements pinpointed by recent research that will mean rail passengers face fewer speed restrictions, delays and cancellations in future - and will help the UK rail industry achieve multi-million-pound savings.

A whole range of potential improvements to how railway track is designed, built and maintained has been highlighted by 'Railway Track for the 21st Century', a £3.1 million, five year research programme funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It has been undertaken by a consortium led by the University of Southampton, and also the University of Birmingham, the University of Nottingham as well as a range of industry partners, who have provided additional financial support.

Using innovative computer models and on-train and trackside measurement techniques to reveal in unprecedented detail the forces and pressures that railway track is subjected to, key outcomes and findings include the following:

  • Savings of £500,000 a year have already been realised through more effective management of lineside vegetation. Seasonal track movement on clay embankments can be addressed by using vegetation to manage water content and hence reduce shrink-swell problems in the clay, as well as improving track stability during wet periods.

  • Better risk assessment of earthworks has led to improved adverse weather management, delivering an estimated 14 per cent reduction in the risk of trains running into landslides during high-rainfall periods.

  • The risk of landslips can be further reduced by piles driven into the earth to stabilise slopes forming part of cuttings and embankments. Annual savings estimated at between £13 million and £20 million are expected from improved design arising from the research, as well as big reductions in the time taken for the works.

  • Maintenance requirements can also be reduced by including a wider range of grain size in the ballast supporting the track, by inserting flexible pads under sleepers, or by reducing the ballast shoulder slope, all of which can reduce the stresses that the track system experiences.

"Trains have changed hugely over the last few decades, but the track and earthworks they run on are substantially the same as a century ago", says Professor William Powrie of Southampton University, who has led the research. "Increases in the speed and weight of trains are putting our rail infrastructure under growing pressure, while increases in service frequency are reducing maintenance windows. The changes we've explored offer ways to help maintain and upgrade the infrastructure for the 21st century."

One slope stabilisation project in London has saved £1.5 million in costs and achieved a four month shortening in timescale through utilising procedures devised by the research programme.

Kedar Pandya, Head of Engineering at EPSRC said: "This is an excellent example of how research aligned to government transport policy produces significant benefits, in this case for the railways and passengers."

Now several of the most promising ideas generated by the programme are being taken further forward by the £8.2 million, five year follow-on initiative 'Track to the Future' primarily funded by EPSRC and being undertaken by the same consortium, which Huddersfield University has now also joined.

"Our work has shed more light on the many complex factors and mechanisms that determine how railway track behaves," Professor Powrie says. "Our conclusions are equally applicable to the UK's existing rail network and to the high-speed railways of tomorrow."


For interviews contact:

Professor William Powrie, Faculty of Engineering and the Environment, University of Southampton, Tel: 023 8059 3214, Email:; or Rod Anderson,

Professor Glenn McDowell DSc, Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham. Email: PA: Laura Conkey: Tel: 0115 9514090

Professor Clive Roberts, School of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering, University of Birmingham. E-mail: Tel: +44 121 414 4306

For images contact the EPSRC Press Office, Tel: 01793 444 404, or e-mail,

Image 1: Investigating Ballast Migration

Image 2: Monitoring discrete pile stabilisation

Image 3: Scale track model tests for noise radiation and absorption

Image 4: Discrete element model of ballast and sleeper interface

Image 5: Preparing laboratory sample for soil test

Images to be credited to University of Southampton

Notes for Editors:

The five year EPSRC-funded research programme 'Railway Track for the 21st Century' began in June 2010.

Industrial partners include: Network Rail, London Underground, Tata Steel, Balfour Beatty, Pandrol Track Systems, the Rail Safety & Standards Board (RSSB), the Rail Industry Association (RIA) and the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC).

The UK's rail network includes over 18,000km of embankments and cuttings where slope stability is a critical operational requirement.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate.

By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture.

We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

Through world-leading research and enterprise activities, the University of Southampton connects with businesses to create real-world solutions to global issues. Through its educational offering, it works with partners around the world to offer relevant, flexible education, which trains students for jobs not even thought of. This connectivity is what sets Southampton apart from the rest; we make connections and change the world.

The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world's top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 4,000 international students from nearly 150 countries.

The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is 'the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with campuses in China and Malaysia modelled on a headquarters that is among the most attractive in Britain' (Times Good University Guide 2014). It is also one of the most popular university in the UK among graduate employers, in the top 10 for student experience according to the Times Higher Education and winner of 'Research Project of the Year' at the THE Awards 2014. It is ranked in the world's top one per cent of universities by the QS World University Rankings, and 8th in the UK by research power according to REF 2014.

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