Koohyar Faizi PhD is on a three-year research project with Nottingham Trent University to look at improving the accuracy of geotechnical solutions for railways.

With significant investment in upgrading Britain’s railways well underway, there is an intense focus on sustainability for construction. Network Rail describes its ‘Railway Upgrade Plan’ as ‘the biggest investment programme in the railways since Victorian times’ – a plan which makes value for money a crucial factor. As a result, when it comes to laying track on the ground, the role of geotechnical engineering has never been more important in making sure that new railways are built on solid foundations so that whole-life costs can be reduced.

The problem however, is that without regular inspection and maintenance, it can be difficult to predict how track beds can degrade over time – activity which can be time intensive, expensive and disruptive to services.

But a partnership between a university and a leading UK ground engineering contractor is paving the way for major innovation for geotechnical engineering in the rail industry, helping to enable contractors to put the right solution in first time, making lines safer and reducing maintenance costs.

Through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between Nottingham Trent University (NTU), Van Elle and Innovate UK, a new way of processing data and evidence is being devised which could benefit the entire industry.

Making knowledge accessible

Koohyar Faizi PhD is on a three-year research project with NTU to look at improving the accuracy of geotechnical solutions for railways, for both new projects and for maintenance and refurbishment works, and will be working with Van Elle to implement the findings and develop new technology which could change the industry.

Koohyar said: ‘In this project we’re looking to optimise the design process for the track bed stabilisation system which is already developed by Van Elle. As a relatively new system, there aren’t a lot of guidelines and standards available to tell us which type of pile to use on certain types of track bed based on different ground states and different weights.’

Over the course of three years, Koohyar will be looking at two aspects of monitoring rail deflection before combining them into one simple, easy to use solution.

‘What we’re doing is developing two packages. One is purely geotechnical engineering where we use numerical analysis and software to simulate the behaviour of piles based on different scenarios such as types of soils, speeds, weights and so on.’

 ‘Meanwhile, we’re using something called vision-based technology, which uses cameras to monitor the rail deflection and gives us information to use in our designs. The idea is to combine these two packages to inform better decisions about the type of engineering required, the exact type of pile needed for various points on the line and the length of the pile needed at precise points.’

‘At the end of the project we will develop some user-friendly software so that everyone can use it without any specialist knowledge. The idea is that all this work can be done in an app so that someone who doesn’t have extensive knowledge of these areas can use it to tell them what type of solutions are needed on a project.’

‘Engineers will be able to easily record a video, put it through the software and get the final results, saving time and money for the customer and enabling us to get a more accurate and suitable solution.’

Van Elle’s track bed stabilisation system enables refurbishment of degraded track bed by installing smart-piles through the ballast layer of the track and into more competent soil beneath, strengthening the ground which has become soft or can no longer support the load above.

Because the piles go through the track and between the sleepers and with most work completed during off-peak hours there is little disruption to rail services.

It’s a system which has helped repair rail lines across the country for more than five years, but this new research is helping to enhance it further. Through the partnership project, new technology will be able to tell engineers about the state of the track bed they’re working on with greater accuracy to inform better and more sustainable decisions – all in a more accessible format.

It can also inform as to whether further ground engineering is required to prevent future failures.

Combining knowledge

The Knowledge Transfer Partnership between NTU and Van Elle is co-funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, which is dedicated to developing new ideas for the benefit of businesses across the country.

John Allsop, Director of Rail Engineering at Van Elle, said: ‘It’s brilliant to be working with Nottingham Trent University to enhance a product which we’re already really proud of. The work Koohyar is doing along with the team from NTU and Van Elle has a benefit for Engineers all over the world potentially. It’s really exciting.

‘Our track bed stabilisation system is an innovative product in itself, so this partnership is further evidence of the importance we put on new techniques that can drive the industry forward.’

Professor Ming Sun, Associate Dean for Research at the School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment at Nottingham Trent University, said: ‘We are delighted with the opportunity to collaborate with Van Elle during this KTP project. Our academics will support the company in developing innovative solutions for rail track piling with their knowledge and expertise in non-contact vision-based monitoring and geotechnical numerical modelling.

This collaboration demonstrates the relevance of our research to real world problems and the impact that we can make by working with an industry partner. I hope that this is the start of a long term relationship between NTU and Van Elle.’

Engineering around the world

Koohyar’s engineering background has taken him from his home in Iran to Malaysia and back before heading to the UK where he gained his PhD in Birmingham. With ambitions of becoming a chartered engineer, he hopes the project will give him the industrial and academic experience to realise his dream.

Having spent time working in fields such as civil and offshore engineering, Koohyar is now getting used to the unique landscape and challenges of rail and using the experience to round out his engineering skill set.

‘I had a good understanding of rail engineering from a previous role but I was mainly focussed on offshore engineering. I needed more information and knowledge on rail with regards codes, terminology and standards and so on. Since I started with Van Elle, I have been studying to build up my knowledge base.’

‘Rail engineering is completely different to what I’ve done before. Every day I’m just searching for new information to help me and every day I find some new terminologies that I’ve not seen before so I’ve been learning how I can use and implement them in my work. It is very hard but very interesting.’

Starting small and scaling up

Due to the impact of Covid, Koohyar has been starting small using a low-tech solution, which includes a smart phone and a ruler, from his own home to begin the research.

‘Part of developing the vision-based technology is developing a code to use. I have a very small set-up at home, where I use a ruler and a smart phone where I can take pictures and put it into a code so I can see if it works and solve any problems. I can then prove this with specialist software and see where there are any gaps or if I need to gain any more knowledge.’

The plan for the next three years is to begin in a lab environment and as the project develops, scale up using Van Elle’s testing facility at its main base in Nottinghamshire. From there, Koohyar will take the project out into the real world onto live Van Elle projects.

‘At Nottingham Trent University we have access to a geotechnical and civil lab where we can set up some small-scale loads and do some testing with the vision-based technology. In the next stage I will repeat the process with Van Elle’s test track facility and play with a larger scale and see what difference it makes in different scenarios and see what results we get. Finally, once we have this information we will go to sites and redo all these experiments in a real-life scenario based on different loads, speeds. We’ll repeat this until we have a good package to show everyone.’


For more information on track bed stabilisation with Van Elle, visit www.van-elle.co.uk.