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Ultrasonic inspection of railway traction

and rolling stock axles
The three main techniques used by British Rail
P. Farley
Axl es of t ract i on and rol l i ng stock in use by Bri ti sh Rail are subjected t o in-service
ndt using three mandat ory ul trasoni c techniques; these are an end-wise scan, a near
end-l ow angle scan and a high angle shear wave scan. The use of these three scans
ensures t hat the whol e axle is tested, not j ust the t radi t i onal cracking zones.
Railway organisations throughout the world have for many
years, effectively contained the problem of fatigue cracks
in traction and rolling stock axles by ultrasonic testing. In
the main the problem has centred at the inner edges of the
roadwheel seatings where the maximum stress concentrations
occur on axles of early and questionable design, as compared
with modern standards (see Fig. 1).
Accepting wheelseat cracking as a fact of life, railway
engineers of the past instituted many different methods of
inspection to provide an early warning of the presence of a
crack in an axle. To detect a crack which normally occurred
3 to 4 mm under the inside face of the wheel hub, the face
of the hub would be machined back to expose the crack to
visual inspection, often augmented by magnetic particle
testing. Effective though this method was, the number of
inspections possible depended on the dimensional tolerances
of the wheel pair.
Inevitably this method became destructive with time,
resulting in many sound wheel pairs being scrapped. The
detection of cracking in the axle body (see again Fig. 1),
entailed the use of hot whale oil and whitewash applied
after the axle had been cleaned by scraping, and was an
early version of the dye penetrant method.
The advent of a practical method of ultrasonic testing in the
middle to later 1940s changed the face of axle testing. 1
Ultrasonic techniques were developed for the detection of
axle cracks, although by modern standards these techniques
were crude due to the crudity of the instrumentation and
probes available at that time.
Railway engineers throughout the world quickly accepted
ultrasonic testing as the answer to the traditional problem of
axle inspection. As the method developed it soon became
apparent that two clearly defined schools of thought existed
as the to extent to which ultrasonic inspection should be
applied to axles. The first, adopted by the old railway
companies in Britain suggested that the whole axle should
be inspected. The second, favoured by the Continental
Mr Farley is wi t h the Materials and Inspection Engineers Division of
the Chief Mechanical and Electrical Engineers Department, Bri ti sh
Rail, Derby, England.
w~LL ~ tt~
Fig. 1 Many fatigue cracks occur at the inner edges of t he road-
wheel seatings, part i cul arl y in ol der design axles
railways, proposed that only the traditional cracking zones
need to be inspected. 2 The philosophy of overall inspection
in which the whole axle is examined whilst particular
attention is paid to the highly stressed areas at the wheel-
seats, has been strictly adhered to by British Rail (BR) up
to and including the present day.
Experience gained over the thirty years or so since those
early days, has shown that it can be highly dangerous to
assume that an axle will crack only at points pre-determined
by stress concentrations. 3 Consider for example the case of
incidental damage to the axle which can occur at any time
during the life of the axle and for any one of a number of
reasons. Such damage has resulted in the initiation of cracking
at positions along the length of the axle where cracks were
least expected. Manufacturing faults also give rise to other
unpredictable sources of cracking. Fig. 2 shows a fatigue crack
midway along the axle, caused by a surface breaking hydrogen
flake. Fig. 3 illustrates a fatigue crack which occurred as a
direct result of the hot branding used to record the axle
production data. Both these examples show that cracking can
occur where it is least expected and which would have passed
undetected by testing based on the ' zonal' philosophy. The
point should be made that i f these two defects had not been
detected by overal testing of the axles concerned they could
have resulted in failure in traffic.
In stressing the need to test an axle overall, it is not the
author' s intention to minimise the importance of detailed
NDT INTERNATIONAL. DECEMBER 1 9 7 8 0308-9126/78/060287-07 $02.00 © 1978 IPC Business Press 287
detected ultrasonically can often be salvaged. Where the
axle is one of questionable design but still possesses certain
geometric characteristics at the wheelseat/axle body transition,
t hen this axle can be salvaged by machining the crack out and
re-shaping the transition to conform to the requirements of
the designer. 4
Fig. 2 A fatigue crack midway along an axle was initiated at a
surface breaking hydrogen flake
Fig. 3 A fatigue crack was caused by hot branding used to
record axle production data
examination of the inner edges of the wheelseats since this
is where most defects do indeed occur particularly in axles
having wheelseats of traditional design. An analysis of the
statistics relating to the widthrawal from service of axles
found to be cracked will show t hat only 0.2% are cracked in
the axle body, the remaining 99.8% are found to have
defects at the inner edges of the wheelseats. This suggests
t hat although the probabi l i t y of failure in the axle body is
very small, nevertheless failure is a finite possibility.
Although the withdrawal of axles from traffic with wheel-
seat cracks in the early stages of growth may not be considered
by some t o be essential there is an economic advantage in
doing so, since axles in which shallow cracks have been
Ax l e t est i ng t echni ques
There are three mandat or y ultrasonic testing techniques to
which all axles in use by British Rail are subjected during their
service life. These are the ' endwise' or ' far end scan' , the
' near end-low angle scan' and the shear wave or ' high angle'
scan. However, when specific cracking problems arise, these
three scans will be supplemented by additional techniques,
for w_ hich special instructions will be issued by the Chief
Mechanical and Electrical Engineer as and when the need
The endwise or far end scan
This scan, shown in Fig. 4 is applied from the axle end face
and is used to inspect the full length of the axle. Of the three
techniques it is the most controversial to many experts in
the field for three main reasons.
Firstly the sensitivity of the scan has often been questioned
due mainly to the use of compressional waves and the long
ranges at which relatively shallow cracks have to be detected.
Secondly the use of the axle end face as a probe site is not
always acceptable due to damage to the surface caused by
stamping etc; and lastly the complex signal pat t erns produced
by an endwise scan are difficult to interpret.
Critics of this technique have in the past put forward sound
reasoning for their scepticism but BR now has a wealth of
knowledge gained through many years of experience in the
application of this scan which suggests that most , if not all
the problems associated with it have been solved. Cracks of
the order of 1 to 2 mm in depth at ranges of 2 m are normally
detected using the endwise scan in BR workshops. It must
be stressed however, t hat this level of performance can only
be expect ed from highly trained and experienced personnel.
Some of the probl ems with the endwise techniques have been
ironed out by bet t er communi cat i on between ndt personnel
and designers. It is interesting to not e t hat when the British
Railways Board Non-Destructive Training School opened in
1964, among the first t o attend were a t eam from the BR
design st aff whose main responsibility lay in the design of
axle wheelsets. One of the i mport ant innovations resulting
from this liaison between the designers and those responsible
for ndt was a much smoot her axle end face for ultrasonic
testing. This may not in itself appear significant but this and
sconl r [ ~ Scon 2
Fig. 4 The endwise scan is used t o inspect the whole length of
the axle
2 8 8 NDT I NT E RNA T I ONA L . DE CE MB E R 1978
other results derived from such meetings between designers
and ndt personnel has been of lasting benefit. For instance,
the reduction in the diameter of the turning centre from the
traditional 50 mm t o one of 25 mm allowed the probe to be
sited nearer the longitudinal centre line. Further, the reduction
in the amount and position of the wheelseat product i on data
stamped on the axle end resulted in a considerable improve-
ment in the probing surface conditions.
The far end scan uses a 0 ° probe capable of producing a sound
out put sufficient to penet rat e mild steel for a distance of
3 m or more, at a wavelength t hat will detect cracks less than
3 mm with cert ai nt y at a range of 2 m. Probes with a
frequency of 2.5 MHz are therefore required; these can be
either single or double crystal according to preference.
However, if a single crystal probe is used, the transducer
should not be less t han 20 mm in diameter, BR preference
is for a double-crystal purpose-built probe fitted with
20 x 10 mm transducers.
To ensure t hat the entire length of the axle can be displayed
on the oscillograph, the time base of the instrument should
be calibrated so t hat one division corresponds t o 250 mm, the
full scale value (0-10 divisions) thus representing 2.5 m.
Fig. 5 shows the signal response when this scan is applied to
a D/E locomotive driving axle. The signal diagram shows the
comprehensive (and in this case, predicted) signal pat t ern
expect ed when the probe is sited on the end of the axle
nearest to the gear wheel. Since the object is t o detect the
intrusive signal from a defect in the axle, it can be seen that
the tester must thoroughly understand the sources of all the
signals 7 between the TX poi nt (poi nt 1) and the end echo at
2290 mm (poi nt 6). The group of signals beyond this last
signal are due to repeated delayed reflections from the axle
geomet ry and can be ignored since t hey appear beyond the
end echo.
By far the most i mport ant criterion to be laid down for the
application of this scan, is the sensitivity level to be employed.
This must ensure t hat the signal pat t ern is not subjected to
over amplification such t hat an intrusive signal cannot be
identified, and also t hat the reverse situation cannot occur,
where a signal indicating the presence of a shallow defect
passes undetected. It has long been the practice of BR to
select a signal from a geometric feature on the axle and to
set this signal to a given amplitude. The chosen signal is
referred to as the control signal and is used to control the
sensitivity level for all axles of its t ype, since the chosen
geometric feature will be consistent in all of t hem. This
ensures a defect sensitivity level common to all operat ors
at depots scattered t hroughout the count ry resulting in
consistent detection levels and conformi t y in reporting the
results of inspections.
Fig. 6 illustrates the detection of a crack in a rolling stock
axle by the endwise scan. Fig. 6a shows the normal signals
received when the scan is applied, and Fig. 6b shows the
result when the same axle is scanned from the opposite end
and is found to be cracked in the journal abut ment remot e
from the probe.
The crack signal can be seen at 7.75 scale divisions at a
ragne of 1937 rnm, the crack dept h was subsequently found
Fig, 5 Endwise scan oscillograph f r om a good axle; t he signals
bracketed under 2 are f r om the journal bearings, signals 3 are
f r om bot h t he roadwheel and gear wheel, signal 4 is due to
reflection f r om t he roadwheel at t he far end, signals 5 are caused
by t he presence of radii f or med when the axl e di amet er is reduced
f r om t he wheelseat t o t he bearing j ournal , and signal 6 is t he axle end
to be of the order of 3 nun. The sensitivity control signal
for this particular t ype of axle is shown arrowed at 8.2 scale
divisions (see Fig. 6a) and is derived in this case from a delayed
reflection from the abut ment itself, the consistent axle design
feature referred to earlier.
Detection of cracks by this met hod is assured given the
opt i mum crack proport i ons and orientation. However, the
wheelset geomet ry will always be such t hat problems in
detection must arise i f the scan is not applied from bot h ends
of the axle. The problem is illustrated in Fig. 6 where initially
(Fig. 6a) the crack signal is hidden by the noise caused by
the roller bearings nearest to the probing surface. In Fig. 6b
however, even when the crack is at a long range from the
probe the crack signal is free standing and relatively easy to
recognise by the experienced eye. This of course presupposes
that the tester is familiar with the origins of all those signals
existing as part of the normal pattern.
Consider also the case of a crack found a short distance in
from the inner edge of a road wheel, when the wheel is
mount ed on a raised wheelseat. The acoustic shadow which
inevitably results when the sound passes from the axle body
into the wheelseat is sufficiently large to hide a crack of about
12 mm depth. A repeat application of the endwise scan in the
reverse direction is one way in which a crack, (albeit a large
one) can be detected; this point is illustrated in Fig. 7. How-
ever, when the crack is not deep enough to cause a recog-
nisable change in the normal signal pat t ern a crack in this
position can easily go undetected.
A detailed examination of the inner edge of each wheelseat
is therefore essential in order to detect those cracks which
can escape detection when the far end scan is applied. Such
a detailed examination can be carried out from the same
l ' he near end-low angle scan is illustrated in Fig. 8. The obiect
of this scan is to examine in detail the critical areas of an
axle at the inner edges of the roadwheel seats.
Originally conceived about 25 years ago, low angle scanning
possesses one major advantage over the shear wave scan from
the axle body in that the axle end, already exposed and
prepared for the application of the far end scan is again used
as a probe site. Thus all t hat is required is a change of instru-
ment calibration and probe. The detection capability of this
technique is good when applied by well trained and
experienced testers. Cracks of about 0.5 mm are regularly
detected in BR workshops and depots using this scan, thereby
affording not only a wide margin of safety, but also the
detection of the shallow cracks required by the designer for
eventual salvage of the axle.
Fig. 6 Endwise scan oscillograph of a crack in a r ol l i ng stock
pr obi ng surface, using angl ed probes, and a t i me base whi ch
has been del ayed and expanded such t hat zero corresponds
t o 400 mm and t he t ent h di vi si on represents 650 ram. The
following section describes the techniques empl oyed by
BR as a mandat or y requirement in standing orders for
routine inspection.
T h e near e n d - l o w angl e scan
The detection of wheelseat cracking can be approached in
two ways, either by using hollow ground shear wave probes
sited on the axle body (see next section) or by using low
angle compressional wave probes from the axle end face where
access to the axle is gained through the axle box lid opening.
~ _ /~'A Acoustic
C r a c k ~ shadow
I i i i i i i i i i . . . . . i
Acoustic shadow "
D I r e o t i o n of e¢cln
Fig. 7 Scanning is required f rom both ends of the axte to avoid
cracks being hidden by an acoustic shadow
290 NDT I N T E R N A T I ON A L . DECEMBER 1978
Fi g. 8 The near end scan is used t o exami ne t he cr i t i cal areas
at t he i nner edges of t he wheel seats
Fig. 9 shows how the scan is applied and the resultant
typical signal pattern. The axle shown is one fitted t o a
typical electrical multiple unit driving wheelpair. A 15 °,
2.5 MHz double crystal compressional wave probe fitted
with 20 × 10 mm barium titanate transducers 6 is used and
is sited below the turning centre. The signal pat t ern is
displayed on an expanded time base where each scale
division corresponds to 25 mm and the trace delayed so
that 0 corresponds to 400 and 10 to 650 mm, giving a defect
location accuracy of 2.5 mm or better.
Since the sole object of the scan is to allow a detailed exam-
ination of the innermost edge of the wheelseat, the primary
signal is t hat designated W1, or the first wheel signal. Result-
mg as it does from the part of the wheel hub closest to the
axle surface, the signal I¢] is an ideal aiming poi nt since the
typical wheelseat crack lies bet ween 5 and 10 mm inboard of
this point. In addition W~ provides an inbuilt sensitivity
control when the amplitude of the signal is increased or
decreased to suit the detection level required. Fig. 9 shows
where W~ is set t o an amplitude of 15 mm, the standard used
by BR for the t ype of wheel/axle arrangement shown. How-
ever, when the axle is one where a stress relief groove exists
in the axle at the interface of the roadwheel and gear wheel
(see inset to Fig. 9), then the amplitude of WI must be
reduced t o 10 nun. Where a stress relief groove exists, cont act
between the wheel and axle is reduced by the intrusion of the
air pocket formed by the groove. Thus the amplitude of W~
is reduced by an amount equal t o one third of its original
amplitude (15 mm) to 10 mm for a sensitivity level common
to bot h designs, ie with or wi t hout groove.
In the early 1960s an i mport ant survey was carried out on
BR to establish the reliability of using WI as a test sensitivity
control signal.
The use of W~ as a control signal relies for its success upon
consistent results from the wheelboss face in the presence of
four possible variables:
• the quality of the probing surface at the axle end face,
• the acoustic transparency of the axle material,
• the transparency of the interface between the axle and
wheel, through which the pulse must pass before impinging
upon the face of the wheel, and
• the reflecting properties of the wheelboss face.
The BR survey recorded the results obtained when the near-
end scan was applied to 1000 wheelsets fitted to diesel
dect ri c locomotives. The results when analysed, showed a
remarkable degree of consistency in test sensitivity when IV1
was set to an amplitude of 15 mm at a scanning angle of
7.5 °. The maxi mum deviation was found to be 3 db, wi t h
the average variation being 2 db.
Experience has shown t hat any angle, mat ched to the axle
geometry can be used for compressional wave scanning up to
a maxi mum angle in steel of 20°; this is illustrated in Fig. 10.
Beyond this angle the intrusion of the shear waves is such
t hat interpretation is ext remel y difficult. The maxi mum
angle in use on BR is 17.5 ° to the normal of the axle end
surface. I f angles greater than this are required t hen it is
usual to use 17.5 ° and use the high energy port i on of the
sound pulse, t aken as 4 ° either side of the centre line. Thus
scanning at an angle of 21 ° is possible and in the case of
one particular class of locomotive axle, is regularly in use.
~J W 2
_~.I~ ~
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . < f
Slant range ( SL/ R) : Norlmel~ll
Fig. 9 The near end scan showing the primary signal, W 1 used
as t he c ont r ol signal
NDT I NT E RNA T I ONA L . DE CE MB E R 1978 291
Fi g. 1 0 An g l e s u p t o 21 ° can be used wi t h near end scanni ng
/ ~ I / Hallow ground
~ / ~ / ~ r wove probe
Cdfi~l ~
Fig. 1 1 The shear wave scan is appl i ed adj acent t o the roadwheel
The shear wave or hi gh angle scan
The term 'high angle' is traditionally used by BR to describe
an axle testing met hod at a scanning angle greater than 35 °
and which therefore empl oys shear waves. As used by BR,
the purpose of this scan is similar to t hat of the near end scan
but gives a different ~,iew of the defect since the scan is
applied from the part of the axle body adjacent to the road-
wheel seats (see Fig. 11). Shear wave scanning, when applied
to axles in situ may be at times difficult in the physical
sense, but it is the most simple to interpret, except in the
case of wheelseats to which a gear wheel is abutted. In these
instances problems in signal interpretation will arise,
particularly to the unwary.
A shear wave scan can only be applied from the body of the
axle when a probe site is available, but since this is not
always possible, (particularly in cases where the axle is
shrouded by a casing), an alternative probe site must be
found on the axle end. It is therefore inevitable t hat in
providing adequate ultrasonic testing coverage of all axles,
whether these are fitted to tractive or rolling st ock vehicles,
the maj ori t y of testing is carried out from the axle end.
Reference to BR Chief Mechanical Engineers standing order
for the ultrasonic testing of axles s will show t hat the vast
majority of axles will be subjected to testing at intermediate
periods (linked to tyre turning) between major overhauls.
Inevitably, this requires axles to be tested in situ under the
vehicle, when access to the maj ori t y of axles can only be
gained via the axle end. An additional benefit of testing
from the axle end is of course the mi ni mum of disturbance
to the vehicle, since at Depots tyres are reprof'iled by under-
floor lathes. At this time the axle box lids are removed for
tyre turning providing an ideal opport uni t y to carry otzt
ultrasonic testing from the exposed end face.
Essentially, the shear wave scan shown in Fig. l I requires a
hollow ground probe to be sited at a predetermined position
(P) on the prepared surface of the axle body. The critical area
at the inner edge of the roadwheel seat is scanned by moving
the probe back and forward across the line (P) so that the area
inside and outside of the edge of tile wheelseat is fully
covered. Before scanning is commenced, three criteria must
be determined:
i probe position (P) 7. 12
ii slant range (R) ~ s e e Fig.
iii the test sensitivity
Points (i) and (ii) need to be calculated for each change of
probe angle and for each axle diameter (or mean diameter)
where this differs. The practice adopt ed by the DB many
years ago using a standard scanning angle of 37 ° provides
a simple answer for the determination of (i) and (ii). In this
case (P) is obtained by taking 3/ 4 of the diameter (or mean
diameter), whilst the slant range equals 5/4 of the diameter,
as shown in Fig. 12.
The third criterion, the test sensitivity, requires consideratioH.
As ment i oned above, the sensitivity level adopted must
assure detection of small cracks in the early stages of growth,
whilst not causing the over amplification of insignificant
signals which would result in the rejection of good
component s.
Fig. 13a shows the case of over-amplification of corrosion
pits and/or turning marks received from axle surface in the
area of the edge of the wheelseat. However, Fig. 13b shows how
the intrusive signals can be put to good use by setting these to
a predetermined level, in this case to ~ 5 mm, providing an
inbuilt control of sensitivity. Any singular and reproducible
signal received from the edge of the roadwheel seat when the
probe is sited in its correct scanning attitude is then con-
sidered to be from a crack. The signal must exhibit the
geometric proport i ons of a singular signal and must rise
sensibly above the noise level of the turning or corrosion
The shear wave scan can be empl oyed in two ways, either as a
technique applied to all wheelseats where probe access to the
Fig. 12 Val ues t hat need t o be det er mi ned when usi ng t he shear
wave t e c h n i q u e
axle body can be obtained or as the means to confi rm the
existence of a crack detected by either the far-end or near-end
It is not generally accepted by railway ndt personnel t hat
shear wave scanning can effectively be applied t o roadwheel
seats where an interface bet ween the roadwheel and an
adjacent gear wheel exists. It will be seen from Fig. 14 t hat
problems in interpretation will arise when the sound pulse
leaks into the gearwheel and reflects from its geometric
features 8 and where also the slant range to the crack in the
roadwheel seat either coincides, or is similar to one or more
of the gear wheel features.
In this case it is possible t hat the resultant signals may merge.
It is therefore essential t hat the normal signal pat t ern is
pl ot t ed and pre-recorded, as with the far end and near end
scans detailed earlier. The control of the test sensitivity can
also be laid down by nominating one of the normal reflections
as the control signal, or indeed the whole pat t ern of signals
may be used.
The aut hor' s intention in compiling this paper is t o make
available to Railway authorities, (ot her than British Rail)
the i nformat i on and expertise gathered over many years. As
stated in the opening section the techniques are those devel-
oped by BR for the solution of its own particular problem,
ie the testing of axles in situ, from the end faces. The infor-
Fi g. 1 3 ( a ) s h o ws o v e r a m p l i f i c a t i o n o f c o r r o s i o n p i t s a n d ( b ) shows
how backgr ound noise can be used as a sensi t i vi t y c o n t r o l
, ~ r
wa ve
Fi g. 1 4 P r o b l e m s o f i n t e r p r e t a t i o n w i l l ar i se w h e n a s o u n d p u l s e
l eaks i n t o t h e g e a r w h e e l
mat i on, although specific to axles fitted to wheelpairs
in this paper, can be of the ut most value t o ot her industries,
such as mining, marine engineering or wherever a probl em
in the testing of shafts is involved.
Finally, it must be emphasised t hat the techniques are those
which require the expertise of well trained and experienced
testers who are well versed in the arts of ultrasonic signal
A c k n o w l e d g e m e n t s
The aut hor wishes t o t hank Mr K. Taylor, the Chief Mechanical
and Electrical Engineer of British Railways, for his permission
to publish this paper. Thanks also to the aut hor' s colleagues
at bot h the Non-destructive Testing Training School, (at the
Railway Technical Centre, Derby, England), in the Research
and Development Division of British Rail, and the Central
Photographic Unit, BT Films, Derby.
R e f e r e n c e s
1 Byrne, B.R. 'Ultrasonic flaw detection' Paper presented t o
the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, 1956
2 F 4 ~ t , K. '20 years of ultrasonic axle testing - established
methods and more recent developments in the DB and other
railways' Raillnternational (January 1970)
3 Wise, S. 'Ultrasonic testing of railway axles' Proceedings of the
third international wheelset conference, Sheffield, July 1969
4 Butdon, E.S. 'Axles - a fatigue problem' BRB/LAMA joint
conference on axles June 196 7
5 'Chief mechanical and electrical engineers standing order'
Engineering instruction G I O Issue 4 (British Rail, February
6 Byrne, B.R., Johnson, P.C. and Farley P.G. 'Ultrasonic
inspection of railway axles' Ultrasonics 4 (July 1966)
pp 143-151
7 Farley, P.G. 'Prediction and interpretation of the signal patterns
involved in the ultrasonic examination of cylindrical workpieces'
Paper presented to the British Institute of NDT, 1976
8 'Handbook of ultrasonic testing' (3rd print) Data sheet No 7
(British Rail, 1969)
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