Where the steel hits the rail

Posted by Kathi Kube
on Tuesday, May 08, 2012

I'm spending this week in Chicago with some dear old friends, and a whole lot of wonderful new ones at the Wheel/Rail Interaction Seminar in Chicago. It's Trains' new publisher Diane Bacha's first industry event, and I'm really enjoying introducing her to this industry I love so much. It's funny, though: In many ways, being here and explaining some of the engineering concepts and terminology being tossed about is reminding me how far I've come in these many years.

When I began my career in railroad journalism, I wrote and edited stories mainly about transit, and today's seminar was about the wheel/rail interface in transit applications. So I've spent the day recalling what I learned years ago about transit and combining it with engineering concepts I've learned in just the past few years. The cool thing is, I've been able to connect the dots and look at both subjects in a new way. And this has made me positively hungry to know more.

The biggest lesson I learned was that quiet, efficient transit operations aren't dependent on rail grinding, or lubrication, or anything else. Rather, they depend on a combination of all of these working together. We heard about case studies at San Diego Trolley and Sound Transit. When transit agencies struggle with premature wear of rails or wheels, or problems with noise or vibration, they often need to narrow down which component might be causing the problem. Maybe it's several. Research seems to begin with computer modeling, though. First they take a lot of measurements, plug them into the software, and run simulations until they're able to duplicate the conditions they see in the field. Once they approximate that well, then researchers change the parameters just a little — whether it's the track profile, the texture of the rail, lubrication, and more — until they find the combination that fixes the problem. Then they try it out in the field and keep tweaking until something finally works.

Diane went home after the sessions ended, and I sat and chatted with Gary Wolf and Cory Hogan from TUV-Rail Sciences, and Sam Williams from Beena Vision. Oh, we had a grand time! (Thanks, Gary, again for dinner, and Sam for the drinks!)

Tomorrow, Trains' Advertising Sales Manager Mike Yuhas joins me as we sit in on the WRI principals course. I can't wait! I never was able to understand science or math well, but I love opportunities like this to learn engineering concepts a little bit at a time. It really helps me understand what I'm editing and writing about so much better. And let's be honest: It's just seriously cool!

Well, I really need to hit the hay now. It's 2:15 Tuesday morning, and I need to get up in a few hours so I can learn all this stuff. (Help??) Have a great day, everyone, and I'll let you know what I learn. Take care!

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