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Mechanical engineering railway laboratory participates in $7 million railway safety effort

The U.S. Department of Transportation in December announced $300 million for grants to be associated with Tier-1 University Transportation Centers. Virginia Tech is a key member of the Rail Research University Transportation Center, along with the University of Delaware and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

virginia tech railway safety
Mehdi Ahmadian (left) works with senior research scientist Andrew Peterson on the Railway Techonology Laboratory’s roller rig.

The three universities will share $7.11 million over five years, with Virginia Tech receiving $1.9 million over the period. Mehdi Ahmadian, Dan Pletta Professor in the Department of  Mechanical Engineering and director of the Railway Technologies Laboratory, will lead Virginia Tech’s effort.

The Virginia Tech lab is one of three university labs in the nation recognized by the Association of American Railroads, due in part to its long history in rail research and operating some of the most advanced rail research facilities in the world.

“The importance of the American freight rail infrastructure can’t be overstated,” said Ahmadian, who also serves as director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Vehicle Systems and Safety. “With 140,000 miles of track, it’s important that we be able to monitor and work proactively to maintain and update the rail network to ensure operational efficiency, safety, and global competitiveness for the U.S. railroads.”

The team will invent and implement technologies that will integrate advanced sensors, better data analysis methods, and give a more timely assessment of the condition of the track and rolling stock.

“Our part in the UTC will be focused on the health of the railway system by developing sensors to assess the system; data analytic methods to process the large amounts of data we’ll be dealing with; and testing our new technologies and methodologies,” Ahmadian said.

The work will start with five projects in the first year many of which feature the use of sensors on the top of the rail, ultrasonic emissions sensors to detect track rolling contact fatigue, and LIDAR, a form of radar using lasers, to monitor the rail surface.

“Virginia Tech’s role in this UTC is very important and we are well-placed to provide the expertise necessary to the project,” Ahmadian said. “Locally, our team is made up of mechanical engineers as well as civil and environmental engineers and electrical and computer engineers. Together, we will spend up to the first two years of the project assessing the problem and developing a range of creative solutions; in years three-four we will begin implementing our solutions and validating the most promising ones; and in years four-five we will field-test our solutions and work toward commercial implementation.”

In addition to Ahmadian, Virginia Tech team members include Andrew Peterson, senior research scientist; Masood Taheri, research scientist; and Carvel Holton, research associate, all staff members at the center. Faculty members who are currently participating in lab projects include mechanical engineering Assistant Professor Reza Mirzaeifar, and Associate Professor Steve Southward; Assistant Professors Matthew Hebdon and Farrokh Jazizadeh Karimi of civil and environmental engineering; and Professor Dong Ha of electrical and computer engineering. A large group of graduate and undergraduate students have traditionally been involved with the projects spearheaded by the lab.