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Short pitch rail corrugation - cause and contributing factors

K.H. Oostermeijer


Holland Railconsult, Utrecht, the Netherlands


Abstract
In this paper a review of observations form test sites, varies surveys and studies on the subject of short
pitch rail corrugation over the last 100 years is made. Based on this research, complemented by own
surveys, the cause for short pitch corrugation formation is described as a sequence of events. The main
and lower level contributing factors are identified that impact upon this sequence of events. The paper
ends with a description of work that is being carried out as follow up.

Introduction
The first report of corrugation in the literature dates back to 1889 on the Midland line in Great Britain [16].
Both engineers from Britain and Germany had no explanation for this type of wear. The second report is
from the United States in 1895. On a cable car track, corrugations were observed giving rise to very poor
ride comfort and high noise levels [10]. It was believed that in the curve the cable exerted a force in lateral
direction that caused the wheel to slip.
There are also reports from the end of the 19
th
century from a cable railway in Great Britain. Here
corrugations with a wavelength of around 50 mm were observed on both curves and tangent track.
In the beginning of the 20
th
century, corrugations were already a serious problem at tramways. At a
conference in 1910 the results of a questionnaire that was sent to 75 tramways administrations around
the world were presented: 72 reported rail corrugations [10].
The German Railways were among the first railways to encounter excessive lengths of corrugated track,
with figures up to 46% of the complete network. For this reason, corrugation was in the 1930's also
referred to as the 'German disease'.
Nowadays virtually all railway administrations suffer from rail corrugations and with increasing axle loads
and train speeds the problems in terms of occurrence and maintenance cost are increasing.

Definition of rail corrugation
Rail corrugation is a wave type wear of the rail surface with a wide variety of wavelengths. In this paper,
only short pitch rail corrugation is discussed.
Corrugation
1
shows as an undulation of the rail surface with typical wavelengths between 25 - 80 mm. On
the surface of severely corrugated rails the shiny crests and darker troughs are easily recognised. The
amplitudes can reach values of 50-100 μm. Figure 1 shows a typical example of a corrugated rail.


Figure 1: view on corrugation

1
For purpose of readability of this paper, short pitch rail corrugation is denoted as corrugation.

These corrugations give rise to high frequency vibrations in the range of 200 - 1500 Hz and cause an
increase of noise emission of up to 15 dB(A) [1]. Due to these high noise levels, corrugations are often
referred to as 'roaring rails'. Corrugations have a significant impact on the maintenance effort with an
increase of cost up to 30% [23].
Although rail corrugation itself cause mainly noise nuisance and an increase of maintenance need, it also
gives rise to the formation of particular types of rolling contact fatigue (RCF), such as squats and
Belgrospi. The latter is a new type of RCF, found on high-speed tracks in Germany, (speed over
200 km/h) on the high rail in very wide curves with radii of 6.000 metres and on tangent tracks [16], [17].
Squats are rail defects that occur solely in straight line track and are often found in corrugated tracks [34].


Figure 2: corrugated rail with squats

Both types of defects characterise by cracks underneath the running surface of the rail than potentially
cause pieces of rail to break out.
For this reason, mitigation of corrugation problems is also a safety issue.

Observations on rail corrugation
Corrugations have been studied since the beginning of the 20
th
century. Many test sites have been made
and many surveys have been conducted with a great variety of steel types, rail profiles and permanent
way structures, all under a great variety of exploitation conditions. The main observations of these
surveys are summarised below.

Characteristics of rail corrugation
- There appears to be no correlation between corrugation on the left and right rail [12], [35]. In case
the straight track is inclined in cross section, the higher rail is more heavily corrugated [26].
- Rail corrugations form a larger problem on lines with higher speeds [2], [13], [29].
- Corrugation peaks do not move along the rail [12], [19].
- Development of corrugation is not limited to track structures that provide a discretely support of the
rail. Also track structures that provide a continuous support of the rail in both vertical and lateral
plane develop rail corrugations [27].
- Non corrugated rails prove to have more wear than corrugated rails [6], [20].

Type of steel
- Steel from different manufacturers show a different corrugation growth rate [2], [6], [20].
- Siemens Martin steel corrugates less than Thomas steel [2], [28], [31]. Open hearth steel corrugates
less than acid Bessemer steel [12], [15].
- Rails with a lower tensile strength show less corrugation than higher strength steels [2], [5], [13].
Modern-day head-hardened rails however are reported to have a smaller propensity to form
corrugations [14].
- The corrugation wavelength is dependant on the steel material. Historical surveys report that pieces
of rail from different manufactures in identical situation showed a different wavelength, even when
welded together [2], [6], [23]. Surveys show that the corrugation wavelength at head-hardened rails
is smaller than that at non head-hardened rails [24]. This is confirmed with more recent tests with
confirmed identical track structure, subgrade and traffic conditions [14]. The head-hardened rail in
that case, developed corrugation wavelength between 20 - 40 mm whereas the 900A grade rails
developed corrugation wavelength of 40 - 60 mm.

Metallurgical aspects
- Plastic flow of the rail steel is bidirectional, dependent on the location of the contact patch: in the
direction of travel at the field corner and in opposite direction at the gauge corner [13], [30].
- Hardness of the steel at the crests is significantly higher than at the troughs [6], [10], [25], [30].
- The crystalline structure of the original rail steel is deformed under repeated loading [9]. The crystals
are transformed into smaller, distorted ones, with accumulated dislocations [30]. The cementite
lamellae are broken up in fine particles. The deformed zone under the crest is approximately 50
times greater than at the valley [8].
- So called white etching layers (WEL) are often found on corrugation crests [3], [12], [20].

Train track interaction
- Locations of corrugation crests coincide with slip of the wheel [1], [9].
- Historical sources report that corrugation first appeared when electrical traction was introduced and
steam traction was ended [10].
- The propensity for corrugation development is greater at the track that carries predominantly empty
or low loaded vehicles [32].

Observation analyses
The described observations, combined with dedicated research have led to the definition of:
- the wavelength fixing mechanism
- sequence of events that causes corrugation
- main contributing factors
- low level contributing factors

These aspects are elaborated in the following four chapters.

Wavelength fixing mechanism
The observations show that a great many aspects impact on the propensity of a rail to corrugate and on
the actual appearance of the corrugation. Two groups of observations are of particular interest with
respect to the wavelength fixing mechanism. These are:

- identical quality of rail made by two manufacturers showed different corrugation wavelength;
- head-hardened rails showed a different corrugation wavelength compared to normal grade
rails.

These observations were made at locations with identical track structure and exploitation conditions. On
the basis of these observations it can only be concluded that the type of steel and its mechanical
properties is the determining factor for the corrugation wavelength.

Differences in steel production and steel treatments are known to influence the structure of the rail
material and consequently the mechanical properties. The effect of production differences can be
illustrated by the nitrogen content in the rail steel. Nitrogen makes the steel stronger and more brittle.
Tests in Great Britain and Germany [13], [31] proved that the propensity of rails to corrugate increased
with higher nitrogen content. This is the main explanation why open hearth steel is less susceptible to
corrugations than acid Bessemer steel. Analysis in the Netherlands [20] showed that the smoothest rail
had higher aluminium contents, indicating a low nitrogen content as the aluminium reacts with nitrogen to
form aluminium-nitride.
The fact that treatment of the rail has an impact is illustrated by heat treatment. Heat treatment realises a
smaller interlamellar spacing of the steel structure that increases the hardness of the material.

Sequence of events
As the wavelength fixing mechanism is found to be the rail steel, it is the crystalline structure of the rail
steel that makes the difference. Hence the crystalline structure of the rail steel is of prime importance is
the determination of the corrugation wavelength.
The crystalline structure of rails is heavily distorted due to train traffic. A measure of this distortion is the
number of dislocations in the atomic structure. The dislocation density in new steel crystals amount to 10
3

- 10
5
mm
-2
. The dislocation density of plastically deformed steel can reach values of 10
10
mm
-2
. The
increase in dislocation density that is caused by train traffic is clearly demonstrated in [30], see figure 3.


Figure 3: image quality map of new and used rail (from [30])

As dislocations can move through the atomic structure, the continuous plastic deformation will cause a
dislocation pile-up when the dislocation meets a barrier such as a grain boundary or a sessile dislocation
configuration
2
. The crystalline structure of the original material is the determining factor for location and
number of these barriers.
Once a barrier is met, dislocations pile-up behind the leading dislocation but do not combine as they are
of the same sign, see figure 4. An increase in dislocation density in the atomic structure of the rail steel
and the mutual interaction between dislocations results in hardened steel. These pile-ups therefore give
rise to a non-uniform distribution of hardness along the rail, which will allow a wave like wear of the rail.

direction of shear force
source
pile-up
barrier
direction of shear force
direction of shear force
source
pile-up
barrier
direction of shear force

Figure 4: schematic representation of dislocation pile-up


Distortion of an individual crystal happens once the applied shear stress exceeds a value of 1/30 of the
shear modulus of the rail steel. Such levels of shear force are reached in case of slip of the wheel. Site
surveys show that locations of slip coincide with corrugation peaks [1], [9]. This is illustrated in figure 5,
where dirt on the drying rail clearly marks the slip of the wheel at the corrugation crests.


2
More information on dislocations can be found in [21].

Figure 5: wheel slip coincides with corrugation crests

Wheel slip on tangent track occurs when big steering moments are exerted to the wheel, hence when the
equivalent conicity is temporarily high, e.g. in case of flange contact. The Klingel movement is disrupted.
A relatively large lateral displacement of the wheelset is a necessity to reach high levels of equivalent
conicity.
Such a disruption of the Klingel movement is illustrated in both figure 5 and 6.



Figure 6: movement of the wheel on a rail



To summarise, the sequence of events for the formation of corrugation is shown in figure 7.


dislocation formation
and movement
exceeding shear
stress limit of rail
disruption of
Klingel movement
rail corrugation
dislocation formation
and movement
exceeding shear
stress limit of rail
disruption of
Klingel movement
rail corrugation


Figure 7: sequence of events that causes the formation of corrugation


Contributing factors
The main contributing factors for the described sequence of events are found to be:
- rail steel
- contact stress
- equivalent conicity
- dynamic gauge
- ride behaviour

Rail steel
The rail steel is found to be the wavelength fixing mechanism and is discussed in the previous.

Contact stress
An important condition to form corrugations is that the shear stress is exceeded. The stress in the contact
patch therefore needs to be sufficiently high. Some studies also indicate that outside certain boundaries
of contact stress, corrugation would not form or disappear [32]. This would indicate the existence of not
only a lower boundary for the contact stress but also an upper boundary.

Equivalent conicity
The nominal steering abilities of the wheel rail system have a direct relation to the propensity of hunting of
the wheelset. This is of course closely related to the bogie design as is included under 'ride behaviour'. It
is known from cross border traffic, that trains that provide a comfortable ride in the one country can
provide a considerable lower comfort level in the other country that has a different type of track
comprising a different rail profile and rail inclination.

Dynamic gauge
The term 'dynamic gauge' needs explanation. The interaction between wheel and rail in studies to date
take into account a fixed rail and a wheel that can move laterally with respect to the rail. In reality the rail
head displaces when a wheel passes, either due to bending of the rail, due to rail roll or due to bending of
the sleeper. This results in a temporarily gauge widening, hence the term 'dynamic gauge'.
Analyses of rail defects in the Netherlands indicate a clear distinction between the number of defects and
the type of sleeper [33]. In the Netherlands, three types of sleepers are most commonly in use, although
nowadays only concrete monobloc sleepers are applied. These three types of sleepers are fitted with
different types of fastening systems, see figure 8.


Figure 8: common sleepers at Dutch railways

These fastening systems have distinctive elastic behaviour. Hence the dynamic behaviour in lateral plane
is distinguished. The track structure as such plays an important role in the aspect 'dynamic gauge'.

Ride behaviour
An important aspect is the ride behaviour of a certain train on the track. This aspect comprises the
dynamic ride characteristics of a particular train and takes into consideration the actual track alignment,
including track geometry deterioration.


The main contributing factors as described interact at distinct steps in sequence of events of corrugation
formation as shown in figure 9.

rail steel
rail steel
dislocation formation
and movement
exceeding shear
stress limit of rail
equivalent conicity
equivalent conicity
disruption of
Klingel movement
contact stress
contact stress
rail corrugation
dynamic gauge
dynamic gauge
ride behaviour
ride behaviour
rail steel
rail steel
dislocation formation
and movement
exceeding shear
stress limit of rail
equivalent conicity
equivalent conicity
disruption of
Klingel movement
contact stress
contact stress
rail corrugation
dynamic gauge
dynamic gauge
ride behaviour
ride behaviour


Figure 9: sequence of events and main contributing factors


Low level contributing factors
The main contributing factors are fed by underlying aspects. These low level contributing factors are the
aspects that can be tuned with the result that the formation of corrugation takes a changed period or the
wavelength is altered. They are as the buttons of the radio.
Much of the proposed hypotheses for the cause of corrugation formation can be categorised as a low
level contributing factor. As an example accounts the vertical rail vibration. Much research has been done
in this field [4], [15], [20], [22]. These researches show a relation between vertical track dynamics and
vertical pin-pin resonance and the propensity to form corrugation. They also show that vertical track
dynamics alone cannot explain all situations in which corrugations do form and in which not, nor can it
explain the difference in wavelength at identical track structures and exploitation conditions but with
different rails.
Categorising this aspect as a low level contributing factor helps to understand the fact that a relationship
can be proven, but various items remain open. Changing a single low level contributing factor will change
the situation but not solve the complete problem.

The complete sequence of events, main contributing factors and low level contributing factors, together
with their interrelation is shown in figure 11.


rail steel
rail steel
steel type
rail inclination profile
wear
rail roll
wear
chemical
composition
heat treatment residual rail stress
metallurgical
aspects
dislocation formation
and movement
exceeding shear
stress limit of rail
track geometry
deterioration
equivalent conicity
equivalent conicity
disruption of
Klingel movement
axle load
train speed
rail profile
contact stress
contact stress
contact patch
characteristic
wavelength rail
continuity rail
surface
rail surface
irregularities
joints
vertical rail
vibration
horizontal rail
vibration
friction level
wheel rail interface
gauge
dynamic track
characteristic
rail corrugation
track alignment
dynamic gauge
dynamic gauge
dynamic ride
characteristics
diameter
wheel rail
rail fastening
foundation
wear
ride behaviour
ride behaviour
rail steel
rail steel
steel type
rail inclination profile
wear
rail roll
wear
chemical
composition
heat treatment residual rail stress
metallurgical
aspects
dislocation formation
and movement
exceeding shear
stress limit of rail
track geometry
deterioration
equivalent conicity
equivalent conicity
disruption of
Klingel movement
axle load
train speed
rail profile
contact stress
contact stress
contact patch
characteristic
wavelength rail
continuity rail
surface
rail surface
irregularities
joints
vertical rail
vibration
horizontal rail
vibration
friction level
wheel rail interface
gauge
dynamic track
characteristic
rail corrugation
track alignment
dynamic gauge
dynamic gauge
dynamic ride
characteristics
diameter
wheel rail
rail fastening
foundation
wear
ride behaviour
ride behaviour


Figure 11: causation of rail corrugation and contributing factors


Further research
With the establishment of the sequence of events that causes corrugation and the identification of the
contributing factors, further research focuses on two aspects:
- Although a clear relation between rail steel and corrugation wavelength is present, the exact relation
between crystal size and wavelength, which lay in a very different order of magnitude, needs to be
defined. Results from this aspect will enable rail manufacturers to optimise their product.
- As the track structure is an important aspect of the 'dynamic gauge', this aspect will be further
research with the aim to define an improved track structure that has a lower propensity for
corrugation development.


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