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Adapting formula one 1 technology to aid the rail sector

A research project funded by the European Commission has led to a potential breakthrough for the rail sector - by adapting light weight materials most commonly found in high performance racing cars. The results promise to provide the rail industry with trains that are more environmentally-friendly, easier and cheaper to produce, and less costly for rail companies in terms of track maintenance. An all round win-win situation.

At first sight, train drivers’ cabs and Formula 1 cars may not seem to have much in common. But a research project funded by the European Commission has led to a potential breakthrough for the rail sector - by adapting technology most commonly found in high performance racing cars.

The results promise to provide the rail industry with trains that are more environmentally-friendly, easier and cheaper to produce, and less costly for rail companies in terms of track maintenance. An all round win-win situation.

The rail industry’s needs are clear: lightweight materials for trains in order to increase energy efficiency and reduce the damage to tracks, and reduced costs. All, of course, without compromising safety.

The problem is that conventional train cabs, made from welded steel units, can weigh up to one tonne each. With a cab at each end of the train, the potential for weight reduction is clear. On top of that, traditional cab designs tend to be very complex, incorporating a large number of parts, all made from different materials. That is because they need to meet a range of physical demands, including strength, crashworthiness, aerodynamics and insulation. As a result, assembly costs are high.

Formula 1 cars use extremely strong, lightweight materials known as carbon composites to help achieve the high performance they need. But such materials are highly specialised and uneconomic for extensive use in trains.

The answer for the rail industry came through a multi-year project funded under the European Commission’s DE-LIGHT programme, which was aimed at developing improved lightweight materials for use in a wide range of transport systems. After three years of research, a team from Newcastle University in the UK, working in collaboration with Bombardier Transportation and Portuguese manufacturing firm AP&M, succeeded in producing a prototype lightweight train cab which reduces the weight of the traditional cab by a remarkable 40%.

The breakthrough technology behind the new cab takes the form of a ‘sandwich’ construction, in which an aluminium honeycomb structure and a polymer foam core are enclosed in outer layers of special glass-reinforced plastic. The effect is similar to the composites used in Formula 1 - but at much lower unit cost.

Crucially, the inherent strength of the new construction eliminates the need for steel elements. This reduces not only the weight, but also the number of separate parts required. In addition to the 40% weight reduction, the new cab reduces the number of separate component parts by up to 75%. And this in turn reduces overall costs by up to 20%, as assembly and outfitting are far simpler than before.

All of this is achieved while still meeting stringent crashworthiness requirements.

“It’s great to finally see the cab in real life,” says lead designer Conor O’Neill of Newcastle University’s rail research centre. “I’ve been staring at a virtual model on my computer screen for the last three years, and it’s very satisfying to see the real thing.”

It is intended that the cab will first go into commercial use in Bombardier’s Spacium trains on suburban services in Paris.

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