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Tube Curves Get Concrete Solution

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

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Researchers and concrete suppliers in the U.K. have come up with what looks to be a solution to a longstanding problem: a durable method of supporting curved stretches of track on the London Underground.

Much of the U.K.’s rail infrastructure is supported by “prestressed concrete sleepers,” what Americans would call concrete railroad ties; experts in the country say 200,000 timber sleepers are replaced with concrete sleepers each year. But the Underground had kept wooden sleepers in place on tight curves, because a feasible concrete sleeper to fit those turns had not been developed.

Whitechapel Station, London Underground
By Aubrey Morandarte, CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr

The new sleepers have been added to their first section of Undergound track, between the Whitechapel (pictured) and Aldridge East stations.

That’s all changed, according to global cement giant Cemex, whose U.K.-based Cemex Rail Solutions division has developed a concrete sleeper for curves—and a way to put it all together.

The Research

According to Cemex, the company worked directly with the London Underground on a solution for the sleeper problem. The team working on the project cited research published earlier this year out of the University of Durham that calls into question the use of plastic inserts in prestressed concrete sleepers, due to potential issues with cracking.

Rail with concrete sleepers
By Walter Siegmund (talk), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For as much as concrete sleepers have become ubiquitous in the U.K., “surprisingly, their structural behavior is poorly understood,” University of Durham researchers note.

Cemex says the solution involved steel reinforcement for the plastic dowels that hold the cast iron base onto the concrete sleeper, an idea picked up from practice in Germany.

The newly developed sleeper technology is for spots where the railway curves at a radius of less than 200 meters, according to the company. The new sleepers have been added to their first section of Undergound track, between the Whitechapel and Aldridge East stations in the Whitechapel section of London, Cemex says.

Sleeper Options

Timber sleepers are still widely used in the U.S. and elsewhere, but the U.K. especially has turned to concrete since the technology became widespread 60 years ago, according to the University of Durham’s team of rail fracture researchers. Timber sleepers wear out quickly, and are subject to greater weather-related shrinkage and warping, hence the turn to concrete in the U.K.

Concrete has shown itself to be more durable, though it's also more expensive than timbers in general.

For as much as concrete sleepers have become ubiquitous in the U.K., “surprisingly, their structural behavior is poorly understood,” the Durham researchers note. That’s the impetus behind their ongoing research, funded by a grant from the U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

There have also been efforts over the past decade to install railroad sleepers made of composite recycled plastic, though that practice is not yet widespread.

   

Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; concrete; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Infrastructure; Latin America; North America; Program/Project Management; Rail; Transportation

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