Improving high-speed rail travel

Take a look at how engineers have been improving high-speed rail travel across the globe.

Intercity 125 When it comes to high-speed rail travel, most people straight away think of the Japanese Shinkansen "bullet trains", which makes up its high-speed railway system. Believe it or not, these trains appeared back in the 1960s, shortening travel times across the country dramatically. Beforehand it took six and a half hours to travel 320 miles from Tokyo to Osaka on the train, on opening it brought that time down to four. Today, it only takes two hours and 25 minutes to travel the same distance.

Although considered as the pioneers of this market, and still at its forefront, the Japanese engineering community is not alone. China also has in place a growing high-speed rail network, which supports train speeds of up to 300km/h. Its biggest undertaking is building the worlds longest high-speed rail line, which will have a top speed of 350 km/h. This will run from Beijing to Shanghai, reducing travel time between the cities from the current 13 hours, ten minutes, to four hours, 45 minutes. Flight time is two hours 20 minutes.

And Europe also plays its part; China's line uses trains from Siemens, which are designed by Europe-based engineers. It truly is a global sector, and by sharing concepts and technologies, we're able to improve rail travel times dramatically, across the world.

Increased engineering performance

The performance of the rail cars has improved thanks to advances in power electronics and semiconductors, the significant reduction of car weight and the implementation of streamlined design, based on aerodynamics. The progress of power electronics brought about major changes in control systems. Together with the reduced weight, it has helped to increase train speed and reduce power consumption.

In addition, the improvement of curving performance through an in-depth analysis of vehicle motion, the development of active suspension to reduce vehicle vibration, and progress in sensor technologies have all improved conditions. Noise in the passenger room riding has been lowered, and comfort and train stability has improved.

But, as ever, there are new challenges engineers are now facing. One of the biggest concerns currently, is finding ways to reduce noise pollution. Research and development departments are looking at different ways to do so. These include developing devices that are installed on the top of existing soundproof walls, reducing sound where those walls alone are not sufficient in reducing the noise from the tracks. The technology uses sound diffraction and interference phenomena to increase the noise reduction of the walls, in addition to sound blocking.

Reducing rail travel times

But then there are different ways than just the trains themselves that can improve travel times. One of these is improving tracks conditions rather than focusing on the vehicles.

Cambra does a lot of work in the UK of this ilk; the most recently completed being the Rugby Station remodeling on the West Coast Main Line. The main purpose of the project was to free the "bottle neck" that Rugby Station caused.

"The station was increased from three platforms to six, resulting in streamlining the whole layout and making the route and the trains that travel on it faster," explains the company's director, Glyn Richards.

"We use 'state of the art' surveying instrumentation and programmes to assist us both on and off site. In the office we used our expertise in checking design data and to raise design issues prior to going to site and also calculating data coming off off site to constantly assess the current position of the project.

"Once on site we use cutting edge Total Station surveying equipment to help us when validating and setting out the new infrastructure. The installation of plain line track was controlled to maintain the design line and level to Network Rail standards. The S&C installations introduced a third dimension when setting out, longitudinal position, and on the Rugby project we were installing switches to within plus/minus one or two millimetres of their longitudinal design position."

Working in the railway sector

So, you know what the work entails, but what's the actual experience like working in this field? What are its challenges and what makes it interesting?

"Engineering throws up challenges all the time, but in a railway environment these are exacerbated by the constraints under which we work, access arrangements, logistics, time frame etc. There are many factors about the job that make it interesting, but for me the most interesting is the way the technology is constantly moving forward," says Richards.

"For example, we currently have links with a new machine automation system that we soon hope to use in the field that will improve the quality of formation and ballast dozing, surpassing current automation systems."

It's clear to see that many of our members here at the IET, who like to face ongoing challenges, have found their place in this sector. And its good times for this industry - work continues to take place globally on new lines, and developing new technology to improve rail journeys further.