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University sensor research aims to make rail travel more reliable

17 August 2011

The disruption to rail travel caused by the breakdown of overhead power lines could become a thing of the past thanks to a new research project at City University London to develop an early warning system to detect defects before they escalate and cause major failures – so-called ‘dewirement’. City’s Professors Ken Grattan and Tong Sun have received £102,000 in EPSRC funding to develop a prototype sensor system with a range of industrial partners.

The project involves the use of novel optical sensors attached to the pantographs, which measure critical strain and temperature parameters in real time. This has not been feasible before since traditional electrical sensors would be affected by the high voltages present.

“Significant dewirements occur approximately five times a year in the UK, rendering tracks unusable until the overhead system is repaired,” says Professor Sun. “The resulting interruption to journeys costs many millions of pounds, both to the rail industry and the wider economy. Our aim is to spot when a failure is likely and enable rail operators to carry out preventative maintenance.”

The University’s interdisciplinary network on transport challenges, the City Collaborative Transport Hub, will play an important role in the research, with Hub advisor and rail expert, Visiting Professor David Johnson, bringing crucial links with industry. These include manufacturers, Brecknell Willis and Morganite Electrical Carbon, which will provide staff hours and resources, as well as Network Rail and the Rail Safety and Standards Board.

Professor Johnson comments: “Advance warning of problems will resolve one of the major technical challenges facing the rail industry today, improving the cost-effectiveness, safety and reliability of the electric train fleet operation and making wider network electrification more attractive.”

Funding for the project was secured with support from technology transfer specialists within City University London’s Enterprise Office and the research is the latest in a series of initiatives by the University in the transport sector. It recently launched a Masters in Transport Strategy and Systems to help create a new generation of professionals who can deliver the smart, sustainable and integrated transport infrastructure that the future will demand.

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