Railroad Engineering: Trends in Rail Transportation

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1. The engineering 'Full Circle'

Contemplation of the future is always a risky affair; ... but is it, really? There are many lessons learnt in the hard school of experience, things which touch upon the basics of life, that do not change. Personalities come and go, fashions wax and wane, systems and methods evolve but foundational fundamentals remain intact.

Above: Second Avenue subway project during construction (2013), New York City, USA.

And the same applies to the basics of railroad engineering.

The great railroad pioneers of the eighteenth century were men of vision, flair and courage; men like Stephenson, Locke, Brunel, Gooch and many others.

But they only achieved their dreams because they were foremost engineers with their feet on the ground. They all respected the basic principles of natural physics within which they had to contend.

All engineers of the present and future should never lose sight of these basic principles which the great engineers of the past followed so doggedly.

As I write the closing pages of this guide, the years of the twentieth century are quickly drawing to a close. What will be the future of the railroads? Do they have a future? It is now almost two hundred years since Richard Trevithick's steam locomotive trundled off pulling a train of trucks riding on metal plates.

What railroad development will be seen in the next two hundred years? Brunel and Stephenson would be amazed if they could see the railroads of today and no doubt we would be equally surprised if today we could see the developments of the future.

But I am sure the engineers of the past would recognize immediately the sound fundamentals upon which everything else is built.

They would appreciate, for instance, attractive functional stations, good track, safe signaling, well designed and maintained rolling stock, reliable motive power, and so on.

One has to admit, as well, that there may well be aspects that would not please them, indeed they might well be appalled! If there were such things I am sure it would be where sure and tried principles have been disregarded or where hard learned lessons of the past have been disregarded.

In the early days of railroads, it was the visionary engineers like Brunel and Stephenson who were involved at the conception of the idea, pushed the authorizing Bill through Parliament and were personally committed to seeing the railroad built and operating. Almost the first action that a railroad committee would do after formation would be to seek out and appoint the 'Engineer to the Railroad'. He would supervise the initial survey, decide the route, design the civil engineering works required and oversee design of the locomotives and rolling stock. He truly was the Engineer for the line.

Over the years, as railroads have become more diverse and technically complicated, this over-arching roll has been divided. Within most railroads there have been individuals who have taken the lead in their own engineering discipline and the operation of trains has been usually supervised separately from engineering departments.

This specialization was inevitable and did allow railroads to be served by the best qualified engineers in the various disciplines. Indeed, railroads have been in the forefront of development of new engineering methods and techniques in the last two hundred years and have produced many outstanding engineers in their particular specialties.

In any organization however, any movement towards specialism faces the potential loss of the ability to keep a balanced overall view of things.

In recent years, there has been a growing tendency to encourage engineers not to become too specialized but to gain a general appreciation of all the engineering factors and considerations involved in operation of a railroad.

So it can be said, to some degree, that engineering in railroads has come full-circle.

2. The trend towards broader vision

This change in attitude can bring nothing but good to the individuals concerned and the general health of the railroad industry as a whole. All engineers should take every opportunity to expand their understanding of the objectives and methods of other engineering disciplines.

All railroad engineers also need to realize that railroad operation is not a separate mystique quite separate from their own activities but one which is intrinsically bound up with them.

If I might speak from personal experience for a moment, I am most thankful that my career led me from bridges and structures to track and then to overall control of civil engineering before becoming a director of all engineering operations and then Managing Director of all railroad activities. That progression gave me an insight into many areas of activity and appreciation of all that is involved, which is so necessary for the 'top job'.

3. The trend towards local accountability

With this tendency towards a broader view there is also an encouragement towards becoming more locally accountable. Large 'umbrella' organizations can encourage individuals to be over protective of their own particular interest and to be unyielding or even uncooperative towards other legitimate interests. A good example of this might be the vital interface between permanent way and signaling. Clearly there needs to be co-operation and 'give-and-take' when dealing with signal equipment or wire bonds fixed to and supported by track sleepers.

Many railroads known to the author have divided up their large engineering departments in recent years, putting people of different disciplines into locally accountable groups.

This certainly does have the advantage of encouragement of local co-operation and appreciation of other people's local problems.

As with all forms of organization, however there are also some disadvantages which must be watched. The main potential problem relates to the necessity to guard against variation of standards across the board, because of local pressures or problems. If individuals in the various disciplines have reporting lines outside their discipline, then there needs to be both a separate standard setter and an 'auditor' for each discipline at the center.

There also needs to be some way of passing on information on new developments and techniques so that all individuals can be kept up to date, particularly in highly technical areas.

4. Increasing use of information technology

Throughout this guide, the essential importance of well monitored inspection and maintenance has been stressed repeatedly. In the past, most areas of activity have relied heavily on manually kept records, experience and memory. With the great possibilities now available through computers, all such records and reminders can now be provided through Information Technology (IT). The setting up of such systems and data collection will be time consuming and expensive but must be faced by all railroads in the near future.

There are now also many possibilities which have not yet been fully grasped which IT can provide for railroad engineering. Annual inspection and maintenance programs can easily be produced by computer once all the data has been fed in. Updating of these programs as work is carried out throughout the year can now be simply produced.

Integration of records can also been achieved as never before using IT, thus allowing better planning of works, scarce resources and railroad possessions.

The systems should also be able to give early warning of work peaks that are likely ahead. This could be particularly useful where certain components which have a long life-span will all come up for replacement at the same time, having all been installed when a particular line or extension was built or equipped.

5. Improved interchange between transport modes

World-wide there is increased concern that the motor car is choking the life of cities and large towns both by fume emission and by ever increasing demand for road space.

Some form of public transport must be the ultimate answer, probably rail-borne.

The upturn in the use of light rail in many cities around the world during the past decade has begged the question -- 'was the demise of the tram so inevitable, after all?' This trend towards rapid transport systems, and in particular light rail, is likely to continue with increasing pace, providing financial backing is forthcoming.

Perhaps the area where there has been the least progress in recent years is improvement in inter-modal transfer. There are many cities, both in the UK and abroard, where transfer from one form of transport to another is difficult, slow and non 'user-friendly'. This applies equally to transfer from private to public and between different forms of public transport.

Transfer to public and private transport at airports for instance is notoriously bad and must cause much 'hassle' as well as loosing countless millions of work hours each year.

From a passenger's point of view, the mode of transport used for any particular journey will be influenced by many considerations, not the least of which is convenience coupled with reliability. The popularity of driving 'door-to-door' in a private car is obvious and will win over most alternatives because there are no changes of mode required, no lugging of cases and no drafty waits. A journey of any length or complexity is likely to involve more than one mode of transport and it is at the points of transfer that most delays and frustration occur.

In my opinion, this whole subject of interchange must be aggressively addressed in the next few years if rail transport is again to demonstrate itself as one of the best forms of transport, particularly in medium haul journeys of say up to three hundred miles. This will involve planners and engineers in looking at journey patterns between cities and within them for the next century.

6. A move towards designing for maintenance

Certainly in recent years more thought has been given to maintaining both the railroad infrastructure and the rolling stock. There has been an increase in the use of components which can be replaced after an estimated life- span rather than seeking to mend or refurbish such components. This trend should now work its way through to all areas including track.

7. Trends in comfort standards

Since the Second World War, people have become accustomed to much higher standards of comfort both in their homes and in their offices. This includes higher controlled temperatures in the winter and often some form of air conditioning or cooling in summer as well as other protection from the elements in circulating areas. Shopping malls and other 'umbrella' developments and modern international airports are good illustrations of this. Railroads in the future must improve standards both in station buildings, interchange areas and on trains, in this respect.

Railroad engineers must be in the forefront of all these changes and need to update their ideas in their own areas.

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