First low carbon composite rail mast goes on display at UK National Railway Museum

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A prototype low-carbon railway mast has been unveiled at the UK’s National Railway Museum as part of its Innovation Platform – a series of exhibitions intended to showcase the latest and greatest in rail innovation.

Image: Jason Hynes, National Railway Museum

Promising to reduce the costs and carbon emissions of electrifying railways, the mast is being featured in a new exhibit on decarbonizing the railway and hitting climate targets.

Made using advanced composite materials, the mast could mark the start of a potential move away from galvanized steel in supporting overhead line equipment, offering a greener and cheaper way to electrify the rail network and secure the benefits more rapidly.

With further development work underway, it is hoped this type of mast may be used on future electrification projects in the UK and hold major export potential for British industry.

Noel Dolphin, director of UK Projects at Furrer+Frey, said, “We’re really pleased the Railway Museum selected this piece to go on display to illustrate what the future of our railways could be like. We need to build the infrastructure, run trains on it and maintain it in the greenest way possible, which means looking at what we can do across the whole industry to get to zero emissions.

“Masts are a crucial but overlooked feature of railways, particularly as we look to electrify thousands of kilometers over the coming years to move away from burning diesel. Using modern composite materials, we believe we can slash the embedded carbon and reduce the upfront investment in infrastructure to deliver a greener, faster and more reliable rail network,” Dolphin added.

The mast, which will be on display in the museum’s Great Hall until June 23, 2023, was last year one of 30 winners of Innovate UK’s First-of-A-Kind 2021 rail competition funded by the UK Department for Transport.

Development of the mast brought together electrification engineers, Furrer+Frey, with teams at Cranfield, Southampton and Newcastle universities and composite materials manufacturer, Prodrive Composites, as well as rail technology developers, TruckTrain.

About the prototype mast

Today, railways with overhead electrification rely on galvanized steel masts. These masts are carbon-intensive to produce relative to other materials. They are also very heavy, meaning they require deep piling or concrete foundations to install, and more energy to transport.

The prototype mast is instead made of a lightweight and sustainable composite, first developed for aerospace and automotive uses. Smart sensors in the mast provide data back to owners to inform maintenance schedules, reducing the need for manual, line-side checks and providing efficiency savings over the lifetime of a mast.

The initial prototype uses carbon fiber, but project leads are hoping future iterations will be entirely fabricated from insulating materials, which would remove the need for additional, costly insulators from the cantilevers.

The mast was installed and tested at a Network Rail site adjacent to the Great Western Mainline between Cardiff and London Paddington in spring 2022; a stretch of track which was recently electrified following the completion of the 6.4-kilometer Severn Tunnel electrification project in June 2020.