The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) routinely conducts investigations of railroad accidents to determine causation and any contributing factors to help the railroad industry implement corrective measures that may prevent similar incidents in the future. Over the past decade, FRA has investigated multiple broken rail accidents in which fractures in the rail web were identified. The common features observed in the recovered rail fragments from these accidents included welds and spots or burn marks on the web, indicating that the rails were joined together by pressure electric welding.
Pressure electric welding uses a welding head that clamps around two opposing rail ends, pressing an electrode on each rail, then hydraulically pulling the rail ends together while arcing current through the electrodes into the rails, causing them to essentially melt together to form a continuous rail.
Based on the similarities observed in the web fractures, FRA rail integrity specialists hypothesized that stray (i.e. inadvertent and unwanted) arcing during pressure electric welding can result in the formation of burns or pits on the rail where it makes contact with the electrodes. Moreover, these electrode-induced pits behave as stress raisers (also referred to as stress concentrations). Fatigue cracks often develop at locations of stress concentration. Once a fatigue crack initiates, the localized stress encourages the growth of the crack, which may potentially lead to rail failure.
This paper describes the forensic evaluations of three railroad rails containing electrode-induced pitting. These evaluations include: magnetic particle inspection to nondestructively detect cracks emanating from the pitting; fractography to study the fracture surfaces of the cracks; metallography to study the microstructure; analysis of chemical composition; and measurements of tensile mechanical properties and fracture toughness of rail steel. Moreover, the results of these evaluations confirm the hypothesis postulated by FRA that stray arcing during pressure electric welding can cause electrode-induced pitting.