On the development of weighting factors for ballast ranking prioritization & development of the relationship and rate of defective segments based on volume of missing ballast

Cronin, John
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University of Delaware
This thesis explores the effects of missing ballast on track behavior and degradation. As ballast is an integral part of the track structure, the hypothesized effect of missing ballast is that defects will be more common which in turn leads to more derailments. In order to quantify the volume of missing ballast, remote sensing technologies were used to provide an accurate profile of the ballast. When the existing profile is compared to an idealized profile, the area of missing ballast can be computed. The area is then subdivided into zones which represent the area in which the ballast performs a key function in the track structure. These areas are then extrapolated into the volume of missing ballast for each zone based on the distance between collected profiles. In order to emphasize the key functions that the zones previously created perform, weighting factors were developed based on common risk-increasing hazards, such as curves and heavy axle loads, which are commonly found on railways. These weighting factors are applied to the specified zones' missing ballast volume when such a hazard exists in that segment of track. Another set of weighting factors were developed to represent the increased risk, or preference for lower risk, for operational factors such as the transport of hazardous materials or for being a key route. Through these weighting factors, ballast replenishment can be prioritized to focus on the areas that pose a higher risk of derailments and their associated costs. For the special cases where the risk or aversion to risk comes from what is being transported, such as the case with hazardous materials or passengers, an economic risk assessment was completed in order to quantify the risk associated with their transport. This economic risk assessment looks at the increased costs associated with incidents that occur and how they compare to incidents which do not directly involve the special cargos. In order to provide support for the use of the previously developed weightings as well as to quantify the actual impact that missing ballast has on the rate of geometry defects, analyses which quantified the risk of missing ballast were performed. In addition to quantifying the rate of defects, analyses were performed which looked at the impact associated with curved track, how the location of missing ballast impacts the rate of geometry defects and how the combination of the two compared with the previous analyses. Through this research, the relationship between the volume of missing ballast and ballast-related defects has been identified and quantified. This relationship is positive for the aggregate of all ballast-related defects but does not always exist for individual defects which occasionally have unique behavior. For the non-ballast defects, a relationship between missing ballast and their rate of occurrence did not always appear to exist. The impact of curves was apparent, showing that the rate of defects was either similar to or exceeded the rate of defects for tangent track. For the analyses which looked at the location of ballast in crib or shoulder, the results were quite similar to the previous analyses. The development, application and improvements of a risk-based ballast maintenance prioritization system provides a relatively low-cost and effective method to improve the operational safety for all railroads.