Trains in crosswinds

A blog from a previous version of this website – written in 2017

At the time this blog was written, Storm Friederike has just passed over Western Europe and has resulted in a number of deaths and considerable traffic chaos. The BBC reported that

Deutsche Bahn had already suspended rail traffic in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate state and Lower Saxony, when it announced a Germany-wide suspension of long-distance trains. Any regional trains still running have cut their speed because of the strong winds. 

A spokesman said it was the “right decision” due to the risk of trees falling on overhead wires and on tracks.

and

The Dutch Railways (NS) and operator ProRail said overhead power lines had been damaged by the wind, as well as some railway tracks. An alert on the NS website said that “at most, only a few trains” would run throughout the evening.

Trains do occasionally blow over. The first recorded incident was on the Leven viaductin south Cumbria in 1904 when a wooden bodied train blew over on the embankment on the approach to a viaduct. A number of other incidents have occurred around the world in recent years, the latest being in Switzerland where a video has been posted online of a train in the process of being blown over – here and here.  Clearly as accidents of this type can have potentially very severe consequences they need to be in some was taken into account by train builders and railway operators in design and practice.  

The effect of cross winds on trains (and lorries to some extent) is a research topic that has stayed with me throughout my career.  My first involvement with the issue was when I worked for BR Research in the early 1980s in looking at the effects of high winds on the Advanced Passenger Train. The issue arose again when the Channel Tunnel was opened as the very light lorry carrying vehicles were found to be at risk of blowing over in ports. Then, with the advent of high speed trains in the 1990s, considerable effort has been devoted to developing a methodology to ensure that cross wind effects are taken into account in both design and operation  – in Europe, Japan, Korea, and most recently in China.  There is broad agreement on the methodology that is to be used. It consists of three parts.

  • An assessment of the aerodynamic loads on the train – usually in the form of graphs of aerodynamic forces and moments against wind angle.
  • The use of this aerodynamic data in some sort of mathematical model of the effects of wind on the vehicle under consideration to determine a graph of wind speed that will cause and accident against vehicle speed – usually referred to as a Cross Wind Characteristic or Characteristic Wind Curve (CWC).
  • The use of this CWC together with weather, route and operating data to determine the risk that the train will blow over on the route under consideration.

The design of trains usually considers only the first two steps and the CWC that is obtained is compared with reference CWCs in the train certification process. Train operators clearly need to know the output of the third stage, so they can design suitable risk alleviation systems – eg. slowing trains down, providing protection such as wind breaks etc.  

Each of the above steps can have varying levels of complexity. 

  • The assessment of aerodynamic loads can involve physical model tests of different types – using standard low turbulence wind tunnel tests, wind tunnel tests with a simulation of atmospheric turbulence or moving model tests. Embankments and bridges may or may not be modeled. Alternatively the loads can be determined by CFD calculations, again of varying levels of complexity, from simple RANS calculations, through to complex (and resource hungry) DES and LES calculations. 
  • The calculation CWCs needs a simulation of the wind – that can either be the specification of a simple gust velocity, the specification of a spatially and temporally varying ideal gust, or the full specification of a wind time history; and also a simulation of the vehicle system – either a simple one, two or three mass model or the specification of the suspension system with varying levels of complexity. More recently some authors have even used calculations that are coupled with the track dynamics and with the dynamics of a bridge that the train passes over.
  • Finally the determination of the risk requires detailed wind statistical information that is not always easily available, together with route topographical information – embankment heights, bridge geometries etc. 

To my mind one of the most important things about this three part process, and one that is not always appreciated, is that each component has a very different level of precision. The aerodynamic forces and moments can probably be specified to within 5%. The calculation methodology for CWCs, given specific values of the forces and moments, is highly accurate (say to within 1%), whilst the calculation of risk has massive inbuilt uncertainties because of the uncertainties in the meteorological information. Thus usually the risk of a wind induced accident can only be specified to within an order of magnitude i.e. 10-8or 10-9. Thus highly accurate determinations of CWCs are really pointless when the uncertainties in the risk calculations are considered. 

Having spent the last 40 years involved with this problem to some degree or other, I would thus like to make the following reflections.

  • The different aspects of the subject – fluid mechanics, vehicle dynamics, meteorology etc. – make for a fascinating intellectual mix, and have led to the development of a range of complex modeling and analytical techniques. For an academic these challenges are fascinating – but these intellectual challenges can sometimes result in the end points of the process (train certification and risk specification) to be forgotten. I am as guilty of this as anyone of course. As an academic I can argue that my work in this area has enabled progress in other research areas, as indeed it has, but the end goal shouldn’t be forgotten.
  • The current train certification methodology in the CEN code is essentially a comparative one with CWCs for particular trains being compared with CWCs for trains that are considered safe. As such, accurate values of accident wind velocities are not required, as long as they were derived in the same way as for the reference safe vehicle. The CEN code sensibly goes down this route, and specifies a simple type of wind tunnel test to obtain the force coefficients. However it requires a full multi-body dynamic simulation with an artificial gust simulation, with a complexity that seems inconsistent with the accuracy with which the aerodynamic forces and moments can be specified. 
  • The above multi-body simulation technique can, and has in the recent past, result in game playing that has no relevance to train operation or safety – by marginally changing the suspension parameters in an arbitrary way in the dynamic calculations so that the CWC is above the reference value and thus allowing the train to be certified. There must be doubts about any methodology that allows such things to happen.
  • Taking the above considerations a little further, there is an increasing tendency in published papers in this area to include as many complications as possible – multiple degrees of freedom of train, track and (if appropriate) bridge; coupling of train movement with the aerodynamic coefficients; very high resolution (and resource usage) CFD calculations. In my view the proper way to use such techniques is to carry out studies to determine the effects of such complex methodologies on overall aerodynamic forces and CWCs (almost always second order) and then to develop a much similar methodology that allows for them in an approximate way that is consistent with the accuracy of the overall process. Just because it is possible, using modern numerical techniques, to make complex calculations, it is not always sensible, or a proper use of resources, to do so. 
  • Finally there is the effect of operation that needs to be taken into account, which brings us back to where we began. In the recent storms, the German and Dutch railway authorities simply stopped train movement, because of worries about debris on the track or trees falling onto overhead wires – not because of worries about trains overturning, as the wind speeds were much too low for that. The same happens in the UK. When high winds are forecast Network Rail and the TOCs first impose a blanket regional 50mph speed limit, mainly so that trains have some hope of reducing speed when debris is blown onto the track. A major problem in this regard seems to be trampolines at the moment – see figure 2 below – and at higher predicted gust speeds of around 65mph, train operation is stopped completely. Also, very often, train movements are blocked by tree fall onto the overhead. Operational reality takes precedence over all the wind tunnel tests, CFD calculations and MDS modeling we can conceive of doing.

The study of the effects of high winds on trains is fascinating and alluring academically, and allows the use of a whole range of fun physical model experiments and challenging computational techniques. But a sense of perspective is required I think – to keep the various methodologies simple enough for reasonably routine use in train certification and route risk assessment; and not to forget the overriding importance of train operational considerations.

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