Railway wheels and rails do not achieve full wear life expectancy due to the combination of wear, plastic deformation, and surface, subsurface, and deep subsurface cracks. Sixty-seven percent of wheel replacement and maintenance in North America is associated with tread damage [1].

Spalling and shelling are the two major types of wheel tread damage observed in railroad operations. Spalling and slid flat defects occur due to skidded or sliding wheels caused by, in general, unreleased brakes. Tread shelling (surface or shallow subsurface fatigue) occurs due to cyclic normal and traction loads that can generate rolling contact fatigue (RCF). Shelling comprises about half of tread damage related wheel replacement and maintenance. The annual problem size associated with wheel tread RCF is estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars. The total cost includes maintenance, replacement, train delays and fuel consumption.

To study the conditions under which RCF damage accumulates, a 36-ton axle load aluminum body coal car was instrumented with a high accuracy instrumented wheelset (IWS), an unmanned data acquisition (UDAC) system, and a GPS receiver. This railcar was sent to coal service between a coal mine and power plant, and traveled approximately 1,300 miles in the fully loaded condition on each trip. Longitudinal, lateral, and vertical wheel-rail forces were recorded continuously during four loaded trips over the same route using the same railcar and instrumentation. The first two trips were conducted with non-steering 3-piece trucks and the last two trips were conducted with passive steering M-976 compliant trucks to allow comparison of the wheel load environment and RCF accumulation between the truck types. RCF initiation predictions were made using “Shakedown Theory” [2]. Conducting two trips with each set of trucks allowed for analysis of the effects of imbalance speed conditions (cant deficiency or excess cant) at some curves on which the operating speeds varied significantly between trips.

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