The Federal Government has awarded $1.5 million to a University of Wollongong research project to increase safety and use of heavy-haul and high-speed rail infrastructure.

The funding, supplied by the Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) grants scheme, will be used to support two researchers for two years as well as a PhD scholarship.

The project, High Output, Low Cost Automated Embedded Rail Track (ERT), focuses on the development of automated solutions to reduce installation time and cost or ERT. A relatively new slab-track technology, ERT consists of a continuously laid bed of concrete with the rails embedded in the concrete in a unique way.

Where ballast track has nearly 100 individual parts per metre – requiring regular inspection and maintenance – ERT uses only four components per metre, reducing maintenance costs and maintenance-related track closures.

While it offers a number of safety and usage improvements, the installation time and cost of current ERT are significantly higher than those for ballast track – issues this research will address.

Including cash and in-kind contributions from partner organisations, the project is valued at more than $4 million. The project is led by Downer, and UOW is the lead research organisation. Other project partners are Embedded Rail Technology (Charles Penny, inventor of the ERT system), the University of Technology Sydney, and Antoun Civil.

Project leader Dr Philip Commins says ERT has many safety benefits, such as reduced track buckling and fewer derailments, but also increased track use by up to 30 per cent.

“An ERT system provides greater safety, performance and availability, with lower maintenance and reduced whole life costs,” he says.

As Australia’s plans are well advanced for many major rail infrastructure projects, Dr Commins believes the need for improved safety in heavy haul and high-speed rail is a high priority.

“This project is a key part of the chain to provide an economic alternative to the traditional rail systems.”

Downer Infrastructure Projects executive general manager Mack Mackay welcomes the funding announcement and says Downer was looking forward to working on the project with UOW and other partners.

“The University of Wollongong has always had a close affiliation with industry,” he says.

“When Downer was seeking a technology partner the university’s automation technology and rail engineering prowess made it a natural choice.”

Dr Commins and his team from the Facility for Intelligent Fabrication (FIF) in UOW’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences will focus their research on new construction techniques and will explore automation technologies to dramatically reduce the cost and improve the speed of installation to make ERT competitive with traditional ballasted track.

“UOW will focus on the automated solutions using Industry 4.0 technology such as industrial robots coupled with smart sensors and end-effectors,” Dr Commins says.

The Federal Government’s CRC-P scheme brings together researchers and industry with a focus on short-term projects that will have commercial uses.


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