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UNL researchers work on warning system

By Art Hovey
Lincoln Journal Star
March 21, 2001
Reprinted with permission

Research with ground-penetrating radar at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln could soon pay off in finding weak spots in rail beds and helping prevent accidents such as late Saturday’s Amtrak derailment in Iowa.

Ram Narayanan, an electrical engineer, and Samy Elias, an industrial and management systems engineer, are part of the Nebraska team working with counterparts at Marshall University in West Virginia. Their shared objective is an early warning system for accidents such as the one that killed one person and injured 96 near Nodaway, Iowa.

“What our group is trying to do is to look ahead and predict areas that could cause a derailment or accidents or things like that,” Elias said.

Narayanan and Elias envision adding a special rail car to trains over the next decade that would use radar and electronics to gather data about the condition of the rail bed to a depth of at least 6 to 10 feet and route it to a central monitoring point.

The idea is to detect minor problems, including the beginnings of buckling of track in summer heat, and get crews to repair them before they become serious.

“Basically, it’s like a CAT scan for the track,” said Narayanan.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the Amtrak accident, is studying a fractured section of track. It’s still unclear, however, whether the track broke before or during the derailment.

“But let’s say it did break when the train was going on top of it,” Elias said. “That really means that there was some defect in it before the train came to it.”

A frost heave, erosive water seepage or some other problem that weakened the stability of the rail bed would likely have shown up in the electronic cross section images the research team has gathered on an experimental basis since 1999, he said.

Elias said it appears such equipment could be put on a train at fairly low cost, “so that every train, as it goes back and forward, will be able to read information and transmit it.”

Jerry Jenkins of the Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe—owner of the tracks Amtrak uses in Nebraska and in the area of the Iowa accident—said the company has no immediate comment on the research.

Dave Joynt, a union spokesman for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way in Hastings, said inspection crews already use electronic detectors periodically to locate such problems as cracked bolt holes in rails. Another problem—frost leaving the ground and track beds sinking—is “a very common occurrence this time of year,” he said.

He said members of his union do a good job, but they are “under tremendous pressure to get across more track each day,” because some inspectors were eliminated and service areas for those who remain have been made larger.

Narayanan said radar inspection is more accurate than visual inspection and also carries advantages over other methods. It is continuous, noninvasive, efficient and doesn’t require that sections of track be shut down first.

Will it be in use in a decade? “I think even faster than that,” he said.

Construction Students Place at Regional Competition

College of Engineering & Technology student teams scored big at the Associated Schools of Construction regional competition, with one team advancing to nationals.
Paul Harmon’s team of construction management students won first place in the Heavy Highway Division. Jim Goedert’s construction systems technology students captured second place in the same division, and Linda Swoboda’s construction management students took third in the Commercial Building Division.

Nineteen teams from eight colleges competed in the Feb. 1-3 event in Nebraska City. Teams use data from real projects to simulate construction management activities such as cost estimating and scheduling. Teams then present their findings to a panel of judges comprising the owners, architects, contractors and engineers involved in the actual projects.

“Every year students tell me they are so glad to be in the competition because they gain so much experience,” said Swoboda, who also coordinated this year’s event. Winning teams and their coaches are:


First-place, Heavy Highway Division: (pictured left to right) J.D. Adam, Derek Pierce, Doug Silverwood, Nick Brandt, Kent Hazzard, and (kneeling) Brandon Sjulin; Paul Harmon, coach.

Second-place, Heavy Highway Division: Clint Langan, Mike Adler, Justin Morrow, Kevin Simons, Aaron Welsh, and Randy Eymann; James Goedert, coach.

Third-place, Commercial Building Division: Scott Karnish, Dave Bock, Pat Klausen, Ryan Felton, Nick Hendersen, and Chad Tresslar; Linda Swoboda, coach.

Perlman Takes Chancellor Post

Harvey Perlman has been appointed as the 19th chancellor of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Perlman has served as interim chancellor since July 2000. A professor of law, he was dean of the College of Law for 15 years. He served for one year as acting senior vice chancellor for academic affairs.

He was a member of the University of Virginia Law School faculty for eight years and was a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Iowa College of Law for two years in the early 1980s. Perlman earned his juris doctorate and bachelor’s degrees from Nebraska.

Ramamurthy Publishes Book

Kluwer Academic Publishers has issued a book by Byrav Ramamurthy, computer science and engineering, titled “Design of Optical WDM Networks—LAN, MAN and WAN Architectures.”

Wavelength Division Multiplexed (WDM) optical networks are emerging as promising candidates for the infrastructure of the next-generation Internet. The book covers a wide range of available technologies and designs for proposed network architectures.

Convocation Honors Scholars, Teachers

Five students and faculty of the College of Engineering and Technology were recognized at the 73rd annual All-University Honors Convocation April 6.

Three seniors were honored as Chancellor’s Scholars for earning a 4.0 grade average for their academic career at the university and at any other post-secondary institutions. They are: Katie Fraass, chemical engineering; Mark Rentschler, mechanical engineering; and Angela Wild, biological systems engineering.

Steve Goddard, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, received a College Distinguished Teaching Award for outstanding teaching ability and dedication to student learning.

William E. Splinter, the George Holmes University professor emeritus in biological systems engineering, was honored with the George Howard-Louise Pound Award for exceptional contributions through teaching, research, public service and administration.