Praise for engineering breakthrough

Engineering students from La Trobe University have been recognised for an investigation into phenomena that could lead to railway track failure and derailment.

A peak body of Australia and New Zealand's engineering profession, The Railway Technical Society of Australasia (RTSA), has given Civil Engineering (Honours) graduates Mitchell Trounce and Daniel Fedele the Runners-Up Award in the 2015 RSTA Railway Student Engineering Thesis Award.

The Award recognises the value of Mr Trounce and Mr Fedele's 2014 Honours thesis findings – which are being hailed as a major rail maintenance and safety breakthrough.

"We investigated the effect of sand contamination of ballast beds. Ballast beds are made of fist-sized rocks laid under rail tracks to stop trains sinking into the ground," said Mr Trounce.

"Ballast beds have what engineers refer to as elasto-plastic properties, meaning that as the train rolls along the railway line the ballast beds press down and then release. This is what we expect the railway lines to do over and over again. As time passes and more and more trains pass by, we'd expect deformation and degradation to the ballast beds.

"Over time desert sand 'fouls' the ballast bed, or fills the voids between the large rocks fragments. We wanted to know if the ballast's elastic properties are compromised when it is contaminated with sand."

Mr Fedele said the pair built a large-scale railway track model in Bendigo Campus's engineering lab, replicating conditions found in deserts throughout India, China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"We found that fouling ballast with sand increased the stiffness of the railway track structure and reduced the track's elastic response," he said.

"This increased the stress level on the sleepers and other railway track components. In turn, this led to a reduced life for track components, as well as increased maintenance demands and costs.

"In serious scenarios this may lead to failure of the railway track."

Recognition for outstanding calibre of research

Senior Lecturer in Civil Engineering Dr Daniela Ionescu congratulated Mr Trounce and Mr Fedele, saying that their thesis would inform professional engineers who build and maintain railway tracks in desert environments.

"The RTSA has recognised the outstanding calibre of this research," she said.

"Daniel and Mitchell were up against stiff competition from students from across Australia and New Zealand, including those at universities with special subjects, courses and established railway engineering research centres.

"At La Trobe University, we've worked hard to create a really dynamic and challenging civil engineering course that fosters the skills today's engineering industry demands: creativity, curiosity, analytical thinking and detail-orientated work.

"It's great to see what our students can do on an international stage."

Media enquiries: Tom O'Callaghan, Media and Communications, T 03 5444 7415, M 0408 900 469

Image: Bonita de Boer

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