The people who figure it all out

Posted by Kathi Kube
on Thursday, March 31, 2011

AAR Research Review attendees examine two of several bridges on TTC's High Tonnage Loop. Both bridges are made of steel and were donated to TTC after removal from revenue service for use in testing. The section on the right is riveted steel, and both sections have significant cracks that researchers are monitoring. Kathi Kube photo

I spent the week of March 14 in sunny Pueblo, Colo., attending the Association of American Railroads' 16th Annual Research Review at the Transportation Technology Center. Tuesday, several experts gave us updates on their research, and Wednesday morning - very early Wednesday morning - we drove to the center for breakfast, the requisite safety briefing, donning of hardhats and safety glasses, and the track walk.

A Research Review track walk can and easily does take a few hours. I've been here several times already, and have never made it all the way around. See our November 2009 issue to learn about TTCI and view a map of the site. The track walk takes place on the High Tonnage Loop, and includes no fewer than 40 sections with 34 total tests running. And that's just at the moment. Because TTCI researchers run the unmanned train continuously over the loop, the materials being tested log 150-200 million gross tons and more at an accelerated rate. 

Basically, the bus drops you off along the loop, and you walk along the track looking at the rails, ballast, tie plates, ties, turnouts, switches, you name it; they test anything and everything here. And as you're walking, researchers running the tests are in their respective sections to explain what you're seeing in greater detail. Several of the tests they're running here, or that I've heard about in the technical sessions, or that I've learned about just talking to the hoards of knowledgeable engineers, researchers, and academicians I've encountered will show up in Technology columns in the coming year or two. Want a sneak peek?

How about ties, especially those used on bridges, made of fiberglass? Or concrete ties shaped like dog bones? Or perhaps rolling switches? Maybe an update on railcar fatigue analysis? And that's just what I gathered in a single day.

Wednesday afternoon through the rest of the week I attended the Joint Rail Conference, which brings together engineers who concentrate on railroading from all the different disciplines (electrical, mechanical, civil, industrial, etc.) to share their latest research and best practices. A lot of the people there were talking about PTC technology, both in and out of sessions, as well as engineering challenges for high speed rail. Other topics are new to my ears, though: looking into ways to measure stresses in couplers and knuckles to catch them before they break, stopping and delaying a train; developing the next generation of intercity corridor bi-level equipment with crash energy management, and determining optimal routing of geometry cars. For someone looking for technology to write about, I was like a kid in a candy store.

Perhaps the best benefit of going to technical conferences like these is meeting people. These are the places where I find many of the people who answer the questions you send in to Ask TRAINS, and they're also the wonderful people who let me invade their mind and research, explaining their highly technical subject matter to this "mathophobic" journalist so I can explain it to you in a way that makes sense to all of us and that is still accurate. After coming to these types of events for several years, I'm proud to claim a lot of them as my friends, and people I can call or email just to ask them to explain to me an unfamiliar engineering concept. I won't embarrass them by listing their names here, but to all the men and women, engineers and academicians, retirees and students I've met over the years and who give me a hearty handshake or warm hug when we meet again, I can only say thank you. You've all made my job easier and so much more enjoyable by sharing your time, experience, and knowledge, and you've helped me spread the word about the wonderful work you're doing, and helped our readers learn more about not only what they see trackside, but what they're going to see showing in up their neighborhoods in the next five years. Salut!

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