Phase 2 (2019-2024)

The NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Railway Engineering Program builds upon the accomplishments and knowledge developed from Phase I. The research is focused on improving the efficiency and safety of Canadian railways by:

  1. Assessing and improving track performance and reliability.

  2. Assessing ballast quality and degradation.

  3. Establishing a quantitative risk management process.

  4. Optimizing rail and rolling stock for cold environments.


The NSERC Industrial Research Chair (IRC) in Railway Engineering Program collaboratively develops new technologies with its research partners to assess and improve railway system performance and reliability, and to establish a risk management framework for potential implementation into railway operations.

The research program was developed with direct consultation of railway engineers and is supported by its federal regulator. This strategic collaboration combines expertise and resources from each partner, which will

    1. lead to a robust and innovative platform to advance scientific knowledge;

    2. develop and evaluate Canadian-led technical and methodological solutions to support and enhance the Canadian railway industry’s operations; and

    3. provide evidence-based research to inform the development of railway industry standards.

A central focus of the IRC program is the training of highly knowledgeable and skilled HQP to ensure the continued growth and prosperity of Canada’s railway transportation system. The research program is led by Dr. Michael Hendry, holder of the NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Railway Engineering, and will play a leading role in innovation, training and cooperation with the railway industry and its regulator.

The IRC program will provide breakthrough research, methods and technologies for the railway sector in Canada. The joining of forces among the University of Alberta, Canadian National Railway, Transport Canada and the National Research Council Canada to establish this IRC program reflects a shared commitment to the safety of Canadians and their quality of life. A large proportion of Canada’s integrated transportation system and economy relies on the fluid operation of its extensive railway system. Thus, proactive maintenance and overall safety of railway infrastructure is of significant concern, and the IRC program will address these issues.

The results of the IRC program will be immediately applicable to railway operators and will inform new and improved industry standards for implementation across the sector. A collaborative science-based approach between industry, academia and government will provide Canada with research expertise and know-how on the application of new monitoring and assessment methods and technologies to positively influence industry best practices for managing the risks and challenges associated with railway operations in Canada.

Theme 1: Assessing and improving track performance and reliability

Phase I completed extensive trials (over 12,000 km of measurements) with a commercial vertical track displacement (VTD) measurement system, and developed a new methodology to remove the influence of track conditions so that the subgrade stiffness can be mapped. The results showed the underlying causes of track geometry issues, and where maintenance is incapable of keeping up with degradation, even if maintenance has been recently completed. Phase II expands upon this past work by completing the development of the analysis of VTD measurements.

THEME 2: Assessing ballast quality and degradation

During the testing of the VTD measurement system on CN track, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) installed an instrumented wheelset (IWS) system on the same rail car. The dataset was collected concurrently with VTD measurements, providing a remarkable opportunity to evaluate the magnitude of dynamic service loads and the impact they have on the reliability of track structures. An analysis of the IWS datasets will determine the relationships between track conditions (roughness, joints, modulus, and change in modulus), train speed, and the loads applied to the infrastructure.

Theme 3: Establishing a quantitative risk management process

Phase I definitively demonstrated the relationship between poor ballast conditions and poor track performance with the use of ground penetrating radar (GPR). The results show that the renewal of ballast through undercutting has long-term improvements in track performance. CN will be implementing the use of GPR to assess ballast and guide undercutting over the next two years. CaRRL will work with CN to review previous findings with before-and-after GPR measurements of track that has undergone renewal. CaRRL will also work with industry partners to develop GPR datasets from the use of higher frequency (>1 GHz) antennas to evaluate the size of pore space within the granular material. The results will directly inform the use of GPR for analyzing the extent and degree of ballast fouling and the effectiveness of current maintenance practices.

Theme 4: Optimizing rail and rolling stock for cold environments

In 2014, Transport Canada mandated that Canadian railways conduct risk assessments for the transport of dangerous goods along corridors considered critical. In response to this requirement, CN and CaRRL developed a hazard-ranking tool and calibrated a semi-quantitative risk ranking method to strengthen CN's approach to transport risk assessments. In order to be fully quantitative, the risk assessment methodology requires the further development of:

  • a conceptual model process of rail transportation;

  • Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) to evaluate the probability and consequences of hazardous events;

  • a risk register; and

  • a framework generating the quantitative risk assessment.

This model will reflect temporal variation of risk with time of year and account for the variation of the prevalence of derailment causes within the physiographic regions of Canada.

Concurrent with the development of the hazard-ranking tool, an analysis of the number, distribution, and causes of derailment on the Canadian railway network as documented in the Transportation Safety Board's Railway Occurrence Database System (RODS) was conducted. Phase II continues the investigation of the RODS database to generate the metrics of seasonal and regional accident rates (derailments, collisions, crossing accidents, and others) into a meaningful statistical format that can be used to populate the rail transport risk model. This model of the rail system operations will include yard operations, loading facilities, and transport; show what sections of the network are at greater risk and what mitigation strategies are effective at reducing those risks; and consider the characteristics of the Canadian rail system and the surrounding natural and man-made environment. This will provide a meaningful operational risk metric that considers public safety, the environment, and infrastructure.