Manchester Metropolitan University

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Hi-tech testing on rail safety

Academics team up with industry

MMU engineers are working on a new computer modelling programme aimed at improving rail safety.

The joint venture with hi-tech firm Phoenix Inspection Systems should predict more accurately the wear and tear on rail tracks.

Phoenix makes ultrasonic testing equipment, and software developed by the university will be tested for accuracy by comparing its predictions to the results of trials conducted using a real wheel and track operating in laboratory conditions.

Computer simulation programmes are used to assess the performance of rail vehicles, predict track damage and investigate rail accidents. They focus on the ‘contact patch’ – the area where the wheel comes into contact with the rail.

Full force

At any one time this tiny area – typically the size of a thumbnail – takes the full force from the weight of the vehicles and all the driving, braking and curving forces. The contact patch changes in shape depending on the profile of the wheel and the rail track, the load it is bearing and the motion of the vehicle.

Phoenix has developed a scanner for use on a scale version of a wheel and rail that emulates the stresses that would occur on a real railway. It is also developing the software to process the data collected by the ultrasonic probe.

Professor Simon Iwnicki, of the university’s rail technology unit, said: "Our research aims to determine the limitations of existing models and produce an optimised tool that will provide more accurate predictions across different test situations."

Dr Chris Gregory, head of the transducer development team at Phoenix, said: "By analysing the quality of the ultrasound reflections from the trial rig, we can detect where strains are occurring.

New way forward

"Modelling rail and wheel contact is a classic problem for railway engineers and one that was first addressed over 100 years ago. Since then, there has been little significant progress in obtaining measurements. We hope this research will represent a way forward, resulting in safer and more efficient rail systems in the future.”

For more information about the Rail Technology Unit’s research and its work with industry, go to

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