High-speed rail is changing the face of passenger travel. High-speed trains, generally traveling more than 60 mph, 120mph, 155mph and more, have long been an integral component of European infrastructure. America is making its own investments in high-speed rail technology, and certain materials are at the forefront of innovation in the space.
Engineering High-Speed Railways
The complications of developing an interconnected network of high-speed railways are myriad. From rolling stock tracks to aerodynamic rail cars, no detail of a functional high-speed rail line is too small to consider.
Composites were and are the backbone of high-speed rail travel. For decades, composites made of fiberglass and various polymers, resins, and foams have been considered the gold standard for everything from moveable track to interior railcar panels. Fiberglass’ inherent strength-to-weight ratio makes it uniquely suited to high-speed rail applications wherein aerodynamics are utmost important. For trains to travel over 100mph they must be light, nimble, and intentionally-shaped.
Composites in High-Speed Trains
There is no element of a high-speed train untouched by glass fiber composites. The Acela, America’s fastest high-speed rail system, uses fiberglass composites to shield carriage equipment under the train as well as in the construction of the cars themselves. Nearly all trains – high-speed or conventional – employ composites in their interiors; the material provides strength and lightness to everything from luggage racks to seat shells. It’s also fire-resistant, a critical feature in the event of a crash.
How is glass fiber composite helping high-speed rail evolve? Engineers are still working on perfecting the various construction applications for composites, but what’s particularly interesting is how glass fiber is contributing to advanced rail technology. Fiber-optic sensors, themselves a critical next-step in developing “smart,” automated rail lines, are drawing from the very low attenuation and relative cost-effectiveness of traditional glass fiber. These sensors can be used to detect weak spots in the track, help trains communicate directly with engineers, and even control speed.
The Future of Glass Fiber for Rail
As urban areas become more crowded and rail becomes an increasingly-used passenger resource, “lightweighting” remains high-priority. New resins are under study that allow composite fiberglass to burn more slowly, allowing passengers time to escape a train car after an accident. Composites are also showing promise as an alternative to metal for use in train doors, known to function slowly and allow a great deal of noise at high speeds.
Researchers are studying ways to combine conventional fiberglass composites with other high-performance materials to improve the safety and durability of high-speed trains. Aluminum composites are showing promise for use in constructing sturdy, aerodynamic rail cars, while carbon fiber is useful for constructing high-use parts of a train that require unparalleled strength.