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'Unbuckling' for Railway Safety

Heat can make rails buckle, as seen in this picture, causing trains to derail.

Engineers are working to tackle a little-known, but costly, foe: rail buckling due to hot weather. The leading cause of train accidents in the nation last year, this buckling causes about $17 million in damage annually. Researchers are developing a system to detect stress on rails before they buckle.

Led by Professor Francesco Lanza di Scalea with graduate students Claudio Nucera and Bob Phillips, the team won first place in the Structural Engineering category for their poster, "Thermal stress and buckling detection in rail by non-destructive ultrasonic testing."

The project, funded by the Federal Rail Administration, uses a "Large-scale Rail Buckling Test-bed" built at Powell Laboratories in collaboration with BNSF Railway. Students are set to develop a prototype to measure rail stress by the end of this year. Nucera is also working on a computational algorithm to help optimize the system and guide the design of a prototype. "This could dramatically reduce the probability of derailments," he said.

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