Cranfield University is working with industry and academic partners to develop a new kind of overhead railway line mast made from composite materials with integrated smart sensors.

Researchers at Cranfield have partnered with engineering firm Furrer+Frey and composite materials manufacturer Prodrive to develop the prototype mast with rail technology developers TruckTrain, as well as teams at Southampton and Newcastle Universities.

The Innovative MAst for Greener Electrification (IMAGE) project has won funding as part of the Government’s £9 million support for First of a Kind railway innovation.

Electrified rail is one of the greenest ways to travel and transport goods but building infrastructure uses a significant amount of energy, known as ‘embedded carbon’.

Masts support the cables that provide electricity to trains and are currently mostly made from energy-intensive galvanised steel on steel pile foundations.

The new masts will reduce the financial costs and energy used in production and installation, while the built-in sensors will provide data directly to infrastructure owners, enabling maintenance to be better targeted and reducing the need for line-side manual checks.

Dr Marzio Grasso, Senior Lecturer in Structural Analysis and Optimisation in the Advanced Vehicle Engineering Centre (AVEC) at Cranfield University, and principal investigator for Cranfield’s work on the project, said: “Rail is already one of the greenest forms of transport, but it is also one of the oldest. Innovation to make the infrastructure smarter and greener while bringing down costs is vital.

“This project stems from Cranfield’s long relationships with Furrer+Frey, TruckTrain and other partners and leverages the University’s expertise in materials, structures and testing to bring together our automotive materials research with aerospace and deploy it into a railway environment. Production partner Prodrive Composites, for example, was invited to join the project as a result of Cranfield’s successful working relationship with them in the automotive and motorsport fields.”

Professor Andrew Starr, Professor of Maintenance Systems in Cranfield’s Centre for Life-cycle Engineering and Management, said: “The IMAGE project is a significant step forward for the University as it draws on a variety of skills and research themes across campus but also shows how Cranfield is a major force in railway engineering and operations, bringing innovative new solutions to decades-old challenges.”

Noel Dolphin, Head of UK Projects for Furrer+Frey, said: “To decarbonise transport, it is vital that we make a swift transition away from fossil fuels and roll out electrified trains. But it is also important that the infrastructure involved in this process is as green as possible.

“We’re excited to be partnering with experts from across our industry to crack one of the big problems facing UK rail – that of lower carbon and lower cost electrification works.”

Cranfield will work with Newcastle University to identify the most appropriate materials to use in the new mast structure, Prodrive Composites to design the production method and Southampton University on the mast foundations. Trucktrain will be examining the overall financial and carbon benefits of IMAGE.

Cranfield will develop the self-monitoring system for the masts which will transmit information about the masts’ physical condition to central infrastructure control centres.

IMAGE will be demonstrated to Innovate UK, the Department for Transport, railway stakeholders and network operators in early 2022, after which Furrer+Frey intend to roll out the masts for their electrification projects across the UK and beyond.

About Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.