The Future Of: Australian heavy freight and high speed trains

Distinguished Professor Buddhima Indraratna

The Future Of series asks UOW experts and researchers a set of five questions to gain some insight into the future states of our lives, our communities, and the world.

Distinguished Professor Buddhima Indraratna is a Civil Engineering graduate from Imperial College, London and obtained his PhD from the University of Alberta in 1987. He is the Director of the ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Advanced Technologies in Rail Track Infrastructure (ITTC-Rail) and the Founding Director of the Centre for Geomechanic and Railway Engineering (CGRE) at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

Professor Indraratna pioneered the fields of modern Railway Geomechanics and Soil Improvement in the early 1990s and took Australia to the top of the world stage in these fields within a decade. His significant contributions to railway engineering have been acknowledged through numerous national and international awards, and he has been an active consultant in national and international projects. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia and a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

In 2018, my team at the Centre for Geomechanics and Railway Engineering (CGRE) and ARC ITTC-Rail will continue undertaking research in the area of rail geotechnics. The CGRE is considered as a leading authority worldwide in railroad infrastructure. Currently, the Australian’s rail network is the sixth largest in the world (about 45,000 km) often carrying some of the longest and heaviest heavy haul trains in the world (up to four kilometres long and axle loads up to 40 tonnes). When tracks are built over low-lying soft ground and coastal areas where the population is highest, there are significant engineering challenges in planning, design, construction and maintenance.

We're now looking at testing and implementing a series of innovative solutions to improve the performance of railway track, reduce the cost of construction and maintenance in the near future, which includes the use of recycled rubber mats, crumbs and other rubber elements manufactured from end-of-life tyres, geosynthetics, marginal rock materials, waste by-products from coal and steel industry, and other new materials under the track foundation.

What are some of the most innovative or exciting things expected to emerge from your field of expertise over the next few years?

Modernising the national railroad infrastructure is a major challenge due to increased competition from other means of transportation. Consequently, it's essential to adopt innovative and effective methods to improve serviceability and effectiveness, and reduce maintenance and infrastructure costs of rail tracks.

Built on the established track record of innovation, sound industry engagement and world class in-house facilities at the ARC ITTC-Rail, I am excited to see our research outcomes in rail geotechnics continue to be adopted by Australian rail industry and create socio-economic impact. Given the fact that Australian rail industry spends a mammoth budget in terms of frequent track repair and maintenance (e.g. $12-15M annually in NSW alone), the proposed solutions for the use of waste and marginal materials placed underneath track substructure will contribute to huge savings without comprising on safety and passenger comfort.

What are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

There are several things relating to the future of Australian rail track design and practices that I would like to share with readers. Firstly, current ballasted tracks lack the capacity to support increasingly heavier and faster trains in Australia. In a ballasted rail track (most common in Australia), a large portion of the track maintenance budget is spent on ballast-related problems. Costs associated with track maintenance are steadily increasing due to the utilisation of heavier and faster trains, as well as the lack of effective methods for strengthening the track substructure.

Secondly, the effectiveness of conventional or traditional track design is questionable in two aspects: cost efficiency and performance expectations. This is because the conventional ballasted track design methods commonly assume the track foundation as an elastic medium, and invariably make several unrealistic or highly conservative assumptions, which often lead to either over-design of the track or instabilities in certain ground conditions that have been overlooked.

Lastly, research conducted at the CGRE over the past two decades has led to a convenient package for practitioners in the form of Supplementary Methods of Analysis for Railway Track (SMART-Tool software) supported by extensive laboratory tests, computational modelling and field measurements. It contains research deliverables from numerous sponsored projects completed under the Australian Research Council and CRC for Railway Engineering and Rail Innovation since the mid-1990s.

Many of the concepts and analytical principles incorporated into the SMART-tool software are described in my new book published by Taylor & Francis Ltd: Ballast Railroad Design - SMART-UOW Approach. If adopted by the industry in the near future, it will effectively address typical Australian ground conditions and track requirements, and provide innovative track design alternatives that are more technically sound and also cost-effective.

Where do opportunities lie for people thinking about a career in this field?

A comprehensive and accessible rail transport system is an integral part of the Australian transport infrastructure that connects communities and strengthens industry. The Australian Government is focused on developing an efficient rail transportation system throughout the country, such as Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail, Sydney Metro West mega railway project, etc. Track infrastructure technologies and innovative design expertise to minimise undue construction and maintenance costs will be imperative for enhanced rail components in the transport infrastructure sector and export sectors. I see employment growth and a lot more opportunities for rail engineers in the near future.

What’s the best piece of advice you can offer our readers based on your expertise?

As a big country Australia depends on an efficient transport system for both commuter and freight sectors. The dependency on efficient heavy haul and passenger train networks make it imperative to upgrade the ageing rail infrastructure, and to innovate in training the new generation of rail engineers with advanced knowledge and skills.

The ARC ITTC-Rail is the first ARC funded training centre for rail technologies national wide. UOW’s CGRE is recognised as Australia’s largest rail track research centre that is well equipped with state-of-the art geotechnical laboratories and excellent technical staff support. Our ARC and industry funded National Facility for Cyclic Testing of High-speed Rail (FCTHSR) is the first national facility of its kind, conceptualised in-house to accommodate a wide array of track conditions, and built by several Australian companies. The construction of the FCTHSR is now complete, and initial trial testing was conducted recently with a delegation from industry as keen observers. It forms an iconic full-scale physical modelling test facility to be used extensively for the development of our national rail projects (e.g. the Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail).

As the Director for ARC ITTC-Rail and CGRE, I invite you to visit our Railway Labs including the FCTHSR at Russell Vale to find out more about research on rail-related projects at the University of Wollongong.

ITTC-Rail is hosting the 2019 National Transport Infrastructure Workshop in Sydney, designed to bring together practitioners and researchers and the broader community of geo-professionals interested in ground engineering aspects of transport infrastructure.