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Advanced pearlitic and bainitic high strength rails promise to improve

rolling contact fatigue resistance

Gregor Girsch1, Ren Heyder2

voestalpine Schienen GmbH, Leoben-Donawitz, Austria,
Deutsche Bahn AG, DB Systemtechnik, Brandenburg-Kirchmser, Germany

Fatigue resistance of rails is nowadays more and more important for both railways and rail producers to
extend rail service life and reduce life cycle costs. This paper starts with a description of the parameters
influencing rolling contact fatigue (RCF). Advanced rail steels with both pearlitic and bainitic structure,
developed from voestalpine Schienen, promise to be a contribution to diminish RCF defects. The latest
results of the track tests of these advanced rail grades currently carried out in joint projects with German
Railway (DB) are reported. Finally the procedure from developing advanced rail materials to a
standardized application is described as a "circle of development".

Due to enhancing productivity, railroads all over the world encounter constantly increasing loads, which
result in excess damage of the wheel-rail system. Thereby rolling contact fatigue (RCF) is the major issue
in nearly all types of railway systems, i.e. heavy haul, high speed, mixed traffic and light rail systems. As it
concerns both the rail and the wheel, dealing with RCF-defects became a more and more important factor
of cost.
There are a lot of influencing parameters on RCF, the question is: on what screw shall we drive to
diminish RCF defects in order to prolong rail and wheel service life, resulting finally in cost savings?

On which screw to drive to diminish RCF?

The most important parameters that influence RCF are [1]:
- loading conditions
- wheel-rail contact conditions
- maintenance strategy and quality-level of maintenance activities
- material parameters

The loading conditions are given by the axle loads, speed and train frequencies. The possibilities to
influence this factor regarding RCF-defects in a positive way are very limited, because railways are
increasing loads, speed and train frequencies constantly to meet customer requirements.

In the wheel-rail system a lot of parameters, e.g. track alignment, superstructure, running behaviour of the
rolling stock and tribological parameters influenc e the complexity of contact conditions between wheel
and rail. The constraints in this matter make it very difficult to set contact parameters to diminish RCF-
defects, e.g. Head Checks. More important is most of the time the running behaviour of the vehicles.
However, reducing the forces between wheel and rail is one - if not the - most important contribution for
reducing RCF [2].

Maintenance on rails, i.e. grinding and/or milling, is done when RCF-defects occur. When the damage is
too great, rails must be replaced . Rail machining is an important and effective way to deal with RCF-
defects to ensure availability of tracks with the required safety and increase rail service life time [3].
However, it is expensive and finally not the cure for the original source of the problem.

Considering the complexity and the restrictions of the RCF-influencing factors mentioned above, we
believe that the improvement of the wheel and rail materials is a very important contribution to solve the
RCF problem at its origin. In the following, advanced rail materials are presented that show to improve
RCF resistance. With regards to developments for wheel materials it shall be referred to the literature [4].

Advanced rail steels

Looking at the historical development of rail steels, fig. 1, it is noticeable that the hardness of rail steels
increased continuously. The aim was to improve wear resistance. The steps mark also different
technological milestones, e.g. the introduction of the LD-Steelmaking process and the Head Hardening
process [5].

DOBAIN Bainitic
tensile strength [MPa]

high wear
1100 resistant grade R320Cr

1000 wear resistant standard

grade grade

standard grade R200
standard grade

1900 1920 1940 1960 1980 2000


Fig. 1: Trends in Development of rail steels

Since RCF defects became a major issue, a focus was given to the development of advanced rail steels
with resistance to both wear and RCF-defects. Thenceforward the strength of the head-hardened rails
was increased continuously, reaching nowadays tensile strengths of 1300 MPa and more - corresponding
to hardnesss beyond 410 BHN [6].
But: The picture is not as simple as it appears. The development of rail steels was focused on pearlitic
steels for the past decades; about 10 to 15 years ago, the development and investigation of rail steels
with bainitic structures started. The reason for having yet not reached the final solution might be the
complexity of these bainitic structures. Contradictory to pearlitic structures, where an improvement of the
material can be characterized by simply refining the FerriteCementite aggregates, the structure of
bainitic steels has already a great variation in the basic microstructures. There exists the classical upper
and lower bainite (= Ferrite + Cementite) and the group of the so-called carbide-free (CF) - bainites.
These are aggregates of Ferrite and Martensite-Austenite (M-A) constituents, where the carbon is not
bonded in the cementite but in islands of Martensite and Austenite. An additional complication is that
these aggregates can show all variations from coarse globular to very fine acicular structures of the
Ferrite and the M-A constituents. To be not at the end of all variations: mixtures of cementite and M-A
constituents are possible by changing chemical composition of the rail steel and sometimes material
properties are modified by annealing.
Therefore the directives for the choice of the right bainitic rail steel are not yet on the table, but track
tests indicate very strongly the advantages of these high strength bainitic steels regarding RCF
resistance, sometimes showing not any indication of RCFcracks.

Track tests are the only possibility to prove advantages of advanced rail steels and therefore the
advanced rail grades are tested under practical conditions together with railways in order to investigate
their damage behavior and to proof their benefits in track performance.
Track testing
Voestalpine Schienen carries out track tests of advanced rail grades under specific loading conditions in
joint projects together with various railways worldwide, fig. 2, and DB is testing various rail grades of
different rail producers, too. In the following the actual joint track tests between DB and voestalpine
Schienen with focus on RCF investigation are presented.

Fig. 2: Track test matrix

Both high strength pearlitic and bainitic rail steels were installed 2004/05 in three test locations on mixed
traffic lines, see table 1. The selected radii range from 500 m to 3300 m to cover the area, where RFC-
damage is the predominant failure mode.

Table 1: Test locations of VAS-DB actual RCF track tests

The steel type, the chemical composition and material properties of the rail steels that were put to the
test are listed in table 2.

rail grade hh micro- chemical composition Rm,min A5,min Hardness

structure C Si Mn Cr [MPa] [%] [BHN]
R220 pearlite 0,50-0,60 0,20-0,60 1,00-1,25 0,15 770 12 220-260
acc. to EN13674

R260 pearlite 0,62-0,80 0,15-0,58 0,70-1,20 0,15 880 10 260-300


R260Mn pearlite 0,55-0,75 0,15-0,60 1,30-1,70 0,15 880 10 260-300

R320Cr pearlite 0,60-0,80 0,50-1,10 0,80-1,20 0,80-1,20 1080 9 320-360
R350HT x pearlite 0,72-0,80 0,15-0,58 0,70-1,20 0,15 1175 9 350-390
R350LHT x pearlite 0,72-0,80 0,15-0,58 0,70-1,20 0,30 1175 9 350-390
370LHT x pearlite 0,70-0,82 0,40-1,00 0,70-1,10 0,40-0,70 1175 9 >370
grades from VAS
advanced rail

380UHC x pearlite 0,90-1,00 0,20-0,35 1,20-1,30 0,25-0,30 1200 9 > 380

400UHC x pearlite 0,90-1,00 0,20-0,35 1,20-1,30 0,25-0,30 1240 9 > 380
DOBAIN 340 x bainite 0,76-0,84 0,20-0,35 0,80-0,90 0,40-0,55 1100 11 340-380
DOBAIN 380 x bainite 0,76-0,84 0,20-0,35 0,80-0,90 0,40-0,55 1250 10 380-420
DOBAIN 430 x bainite 0,76-0,84 0,20-0,35 0,80-0,90 0,40-0,55 1400 9 > 430
hh..head hardened / heat treated

Table 2: Rail steels and their properties

Track testing procedure

Specific track testing procedures were applied in order provide an objective comparison of the rail
damage behavior of the rail grades. Different rail grades (test- and reference rails) were installed in an
alternating order along a curve to avoid interference with the position in curve effect. Two measuring
points per rail and at least three rails of the same grade per test makes six data points available for each
rail grade and each track test.

The measurements were carried out by experts from DB System Technology. Inspections and
measurements are done in half-year intervals for duration of at least three years or more than 100 MGTs,
respectively. The material loss by wear was calculated from profile measurements done by a MiniProf
Rail instrument [7]. The propagation of cracks, i.e. Head Checks, was investigated both visually and by
magnetic particle inspection (MPI). Automated in-track eddy current testing (ET) was used to determine
the length of the cracks extending into the rail head [8]. The real space depth of the cracks (vertical
distance from the rail surface to the crack tip) can be calculated by the angle of crack growth. The in-track
ET measuring-system opens the possibility to prove the crack propagation not only on selected positions
but also throughout the entire length of the test sections. Metallographic investigation methods on cut rail
samples are planned at the end of the track test in order to verify the angle of crack growth and depth of
rail damage by cracks as measured by ET method. To complete the investigation, welds were inspected
visually and the longitudinal profile was measured by the Straight-Edge Compact [9].

Test results
The presentation of the results will be focused on the test curve in Kerzell, because the accumulated load
exceeds here already 60 MGTs. The findings in Mering confirm the observations made in Kerzell,
however RCF-damage is less because of the larger curve radius and due to speed restrictions because
of construction activities on the parallel line. The test section in Hannover was installed only recently to
complete the overview of the range of radii. First results will be presented at the Conference in June

Due to the fact, that the rails of the selected test curves are damaged mostly by RCF-defects, wear is not
the mayor issue. The results support this, because the wear figures (vertical and gauge corner wear) are
even after 60 MGTs in the range of approximately 0.1 mm for all rail grades. The Bainitic rail grades
DOBAIN380 and DOBAIN430 show a similar wear resistance as the grade R350HT and 370LHT,
respectively, only the standard grade R260 has twice wear figures as the other four rail grades.
However, it shall be mentioned that these advanced rail grades showed in track tests with tight curves a
two to three times better wear resistance compared to the standard grade R260 [10].

Figure 3, left hand side shows the results of the MPI-investigation visualizing the formation of head
checks on the five different rail grades after a total load of 60 MGTs. The corresponding data is
summarized in table 3. It can be noticed clearly that the rail grade with the lowest hardness (R260) has
the longest head checks with the largest distance to each other, whereas the hardest pearlitic rail grade in
this test (370LHT) shows the shortest cracks with the smallest real space distance. Investigations at
various other track tests confirm that head checks are becoming finer, shorter and have smaller spacing
in-between them by increasing rail hardness [11]. The tendency to form finer head checks on harder rail
steels was also confirmed in tests in Scandinavia, where the grade 370LHT showed far less head
checking and no spalling compared to R350HT rails.

Fig. 3: MPI graphs (left side); ET measurement (right side)

Remarkable is the result of the bainitic steel grades. They show very light head checking, in which the
DOBAIN380 grade compares to the R350HT grade and the DOBAIN430 to the 370LHT grade
respectively, both for wear and for crack formation and propagation.

On two other track tests with rather tight curve radii one in Austria on a mountain track and one in
Germany on a heavy haul line similar results concerning crack formation on the surface were found.
On a heavy haul track test in Germany, the R350HT rails showed head checks after a total load of
approx. 30 MGTs whereas the DOBAIN430 rails did not. Even after a total load of almost 70 MGTs the
DOBAIN430 rails did not show typical Head Checks, but more a kind of an orange peel structure, fig. 4.


Fig. 4: Rail surface of DOBAIN430 and R350HT rails

More important than the visible length of the head checks on the rail surface is of course the depth of the
cracks, because this determines rail service life time and rail maintenance strategies, respectively. The
length of the detected cracks by ET-measurements is demonstrated in fig . 3, right hand side. The
corresponding data for the crack length and the calculated crack depth assuming an angle of crack
growth of 25 [12] is summarized in table 3. The crack growth rates approx. two to three times less for
R350HT compared to R260 correspond also to the averaged figures found in other track tests, see
fig. 5 [10, 11].

Table 3: Analysis of crack formation and crack length



depth of rail damage [mm/100MGT]

370LHT R220




100 1000 10000
radius [m]

Fig. 5: Depth of rail damage by head checks for different rail grades

The results obtained so far can be summarized as follows.

- Crack depth in curves with medium radii is at a higher level than at small and very large radii
respectively. This corresponds perfectly to the illustration in figure 2.
- With increasing hardness of pearlitic rail grades, head checks become finer and shorter with a smaller
real space distance and they develop with a significant lower pace.
- Bainitic rails show significant better RCF-resistance, because they show very fine head checking only
randomly compared to R350HT rails; in tight curves only a structured surface can be observed.
- Pearlitic rails show higher wear resistance with increasing hardness, e.g. R350HT rails show a two to
three times better wear resistance compared to R260 rails.
- Bainitic rails show a similar wear resistance than head hardened rails (DOBAIN380 corresponds to
R350HT and DOBAIN430 to 370LHT).

Circle of development
It is a common procedure for railways to test new or advanced rail steels that promise to show better track
performance. An example for that is the head hardened rail grade R350HT. This steel grade was
developed in the eighties aiming to increase wear resistance, which was proved in track tests all over the
world [11]. As a consequence, the use of head hardened rails is recommended for tight curves where
wear is a problem [13, 14]. Internal regulations of DB follow the UIC practice and specify the use of head
hardened rails (R350HT) in curves below 700 m radius.
Additionally joint track tests of DB and voestalpine done earlier have also shown a three times better
resistance against Head Checks of R350HT rails compared to the standard rail grade R260 [12].

To evaluate the technological benefits that were observed in these track tests economically, life cycle cost
(LCC) calculations have been done, too. The LCC analysis stated an average 35 % reduction in total
costs when using R350HT rails in curves instead of standard carbon rails [15]. Utilizing the unequivocal
results based on the track tests and the LCC calculations, DB System Technology will now recommend
an extension of the application of head hardened rails. The recommendation will cover larger curve radii
(500-1500 m), where RCF-defects are more common.

The procedure described above can be drawn in the form of a circle. This circle, fig. 6, starts with the
development of new or improved technologies, e.g. advanced rail steels with better damage behavior. In
a first step, the presumed technological benefits have to be investigated and proved by practical tests, i.e.
a technological validation has to be done. Then the validation shall be completed in terms of economical
and safety aspects (LCC and RAMS analysis) [15, 16]. Finally, when the validation is positive in terms of
technology, economy and safety, the last logical step has to be the implementation of the new technology
in standards and specifications of railways.
Unfortunately, it can be observed that this procedure is not applied completely. Even though head
hardened rails have proved their technological benefits already for long time, the application of this rail
type is only in some railways a regular procedure.

Development of
Technical Validation
advanced rail grades
Track Testing
RCF and Wear

Validation of
Regular Implementation Economical Benefits
Regulations, Standards and Safety
LCC and RAMS Analyses

Fig. 6: Circle of development

Conclusion and Outlook

voestalpine Schienen developed pearlitic and bainitic high-strength rail steels with both improved wear
and RCF-resistance, properties which are of equal importance to railways nowadays. To investigate the
track performance of these advanced rail steels, track tests under different loading conditions are carried
out with railways all over the world. Extensive track testing is done with DB on a high sophisticated level
and the latest results are very promising. It was found that the RCF resistance of the rail grade 370LHT is
approx. 20 % higher compared to the grade R350HT and 50 % higher compared to the standard grade
R260. Regarding wear, similar results are obtained. The performance of the bainitic rail grade
DOBAIN430 is similar to the pearlitic grade 370LHT. Ultra-high-carbon high strength rails 400UHC are
used in tight curves of different highly stressed heavy haul lines regularly. Due to the fact that they also
show a better RCF perfomance at these conditions, tests were started now at conventional European
railway lines. This rail type was put to the test at the time of writing and results will be reported at a later
stage. All ongoing tests are continued to proof the results at higher accumulated loads.

Cost savings by using advanced rail steels combined with appropriate maintenance strategies are
quantified by life cycle cost analysis. An average 35 % reduction in total costs can be obtained when
using R350HT rails instead of standard carbon rails in RCF loaded curves. As a consequence, DB
System Technology recommends to extend the application of head hardened rails for curves with radii up
to 1500 m. LCC calculations are further carried out using the results evaluated from actual track tests.
Simultaneously, the development of these new rail grades is continued to optimize their properties to
meet future customer requirements.

The circle of development leads from the development of new rail steels to the technical, economical and
safety validation. The final step is the implementation of the positive approved product into the regulations
of the railway authority. It will be a joint effort of the technicians from DB and voestalpine Schienen to
ensure that this last step is done in the same effective way as the first ones.
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