Generating Energy From Moving Trains Supports Smart Rail Infrastructure

February 09, 2023 by Stephanie Leonida

This article explores the latest research surrounding electricity generation to develop a safer smart rail infrastructure.

Researchers from Virginia Tech’s Center for Vehicle Systems and Safety (CVeSS) have developed a new kind of technology that can harvest energy from moving trains. The railroad tie can generate electricity as the train wheels move over it. The technology could help power smart rail system components in remote locations. The research was published in Applied Energy with U.S. Department of Transportation funding.


A smart rail infrastructure requires sensor technologies to monitor operations and detect system faults in real time for effective maintenance. Image used courtesy of Pixabay


Smart Rail Systems

A smart rail system is a modernized railway system that uses advanced technology to improve efficiency, safety, and reliability and reduce costs for rail operators. It can utilize electricity, track health monitors, wireless communications, and wayside safety equipment to create a more efficient and secure rail network. Smart or intelligent rail systems can also use internet of things (IoT) devices such as door sensors. If a glitch or malfunction disrupts the opening and closing of train doors, the sensor can alert operators to perform maintenance in good time to get the service back up and running.

Using such sensor technologies, the smart rail system can allow operators to detect potential issues before they become a problem. Additionally, it can provide real-time updates on the status of trains and tracks so that rail operators can respond quickly and effectively to any other disruptions or emergencies. Hitachi, Ltd. is just one company, among others focusing on making intelligent rail systems a reality. In a featured article, Hitachi provides a conceptual overview of future rial services. Predictive failure detection, energy-saving operation, real-time demand forecasting, and demand-response transport are some key focus areas the company intends to build upon.

One issue facing smart rail systems is the challenge of delivering energy to IoT devices and other digital technologies they employ to operate.


The Energy Harvesting Research

A railroad tie is a rectangular wood or concrete block that is placed perpendicular to the rails and serves as a support for the rails. Railroad ties are necessary to keep the track in place and provide stability for trains running at high speeds. Railroad ties also help absorb vibrations from passing trains, which helps reduce noise pollution. In addition, railroad ties help protect the environment by preventing soil erosion around tracks.


Conventional railroad ties are typically made of wood or concrete and are used to stabilize railway tracks. Image used courtesy of Pixabay


The CVeSS research team designed and developed a new kind of railroad tie that incorporates a set of gears and a generator. The newly developed railroad tie has a metal bar on the surface which is mounted on a spring. As train wheels pass over the rail, their load pushes down on the metal bar and the springs. This action triggers a series of gears, which rotate a generator. This creates electricity for battery storage. After developing the prototype railroad tie, the CVeSS researchers successfully tested their technology in the lab.

According to the J. Bernard Jones, Chair of Mechanical Engineering, and Director of the CVeSS, Professor Mehdi Ahmadian, the research team was able to harvest around 10 watts (W) of electricity for each wheel set of a train. This means that 4000 W of power can be harvested and stored for every train. The idea is to use this stored energy to enable a smart rail infrastructure by helping power embedded sensors for track monitoring. By deploying the CVeSS team’s energy harvesting system, sensor systems for smart rail systems could be expanded to improve safety on railway lines.