Engineered for Resilience: Timken Rail Technologies Solve for Every New Challenge

As all areas of transportation continue to evolve, rail remains the most energy efficient way to move cargo and passengers across long distances on land. According to The International Energy Agency, all global passenger and freight transport will more than double by 2050. Rail will be instrumental in reducing the higher energy demands expected to accompany that growth.

What can suppliers in a 200-year-old industry do to keep rail the most sustainable mode of modern transportation? Plenty, according to Steve Brister, chief engineer – rail at Timken. “Everyone is pushing to do more with existing equipment designs and make advancements for better uptime and reusability,” says Brister, who has spent his 23-year career working with Timken in the rail industry. “From designing bearings that carry the heaviest loads in the world across the desert to developing the Timken® EcoTurn® seal with essentially-zero torque that can save thousands of gallons of fuel annually, our focus is solving customer challenges. It’s really exciting. We see tons of forward potential.”

“From designing bearings that carry the heaviest loads in the world across the desert to developing the Timken® EcoTurn® seal with essentially-zero torque that can save thousands of gallons of fuel annually, our focus is solving customer challenges.”Steve Brister, Chief Engineer – Rail

Refining a classic: Timken® AP™ bearing advancements achieve ongoing efficiencies

At the epicenter of Timken rail technology is the Timken® AP™ integrated bearing assembly. AP bearings originally debuted in 1954 to solve the dangerous and expensive problem of “hot boxes” in which the plain bearing overheats and results in extensive axle damage, or worst-case, a train derailment.

The Timken AP bearing design nearly eliminated premature failures due to hot boxes. Since then, it has remained an industry standard. Continuous design improvements, including adding the next-generation Timken® AP-2™ bearing to the lineup, have helped customers increase fuel economy, push the speed boundaries of passenger and freight engines, increase the load capacity of rolling stock, and reduce the time and effort needed to perform ongoing train maintenance.

Brister notes the design improvements are customer-centric and often identified through the feedback loop among Timken engineers working in all aspects of product design, testing, service and sales. For example, recent development of an advanced AP bearing for heavy-haul freight was a direct result of Timken sales and service engineers observing new freight operating trends.

“Australian mining operators own and maintain their own massive rail fleets,” Steve says. “Over time, their loads got heavier and pushed axles and bearings beyond their original load carrying capabilities. It led to more failures and maintenance problems.”

Sales and service engineers reported the issues to their product and application engineering counterparts. “We took all our knowledge on optimizing the internal geometries, proper lubrication, and advanced sealing in bearings to create a power-dense bearing that upgraded load capacity but still fit in the existing space under the rail car. Operators can now add five-metric-ton axle load capacity without having to change any other equipment. It’s a new industry standard for these heavy-haul carriers.”

The World’s Largest Robots
At 2.4-kilometers long, the Timken® bearing equipped AutoHaul autonomous trains are the largest robots in the world.

Global impact on efficiency, one train at a time

Timken rail solutions continue to evolve to accommodate the diversity of applications and societal trends worldwide. Whether moving people or products, rail operators all prioritize saving time, money and the environment.

As India is working on modernizing its passenger train fleet, Timken engineers are working with Indian Railways on rail bearings that meet standards set by the International Union of Railways (UIC) to address challenges with heat high humidity, heat generation, low torque and contamination. Conversely, Timken has equipped freight trains in northern Sweden and is also collaborating with wagon builders to help upgrade Russia’s entire fleet of freight cars. “The variations in regional climate alone – with a single train traveling through sweltering and then freezing conditions – is enough to keep us solving problems,” Brister says.

Back to Australia, Timken engineers are adapting to another new step-change in rail: robots. Global mining company Rio Tinto opened the world’s first fully autonomous, heavy-haul long distance rail network there in 2019. All of their driverless AutoHaul™ freight trains depend on Timken AP bearings to shuttle iron ore from 16 mines to two seaports through the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia.

Rio Tinto reports that in the first six weeks of operation, AutoHaul helped increase average speeds by five to six percent. In 2019, the autonomous rail network increased Rio Tinto’s mining capacity by 10 million tons.

“It’s a huge milestone for the global rail freight industry,” Brister says. “Autonomous trains create faster delivery cycle times and they are carrying the heaviest loads in the world. We’re designing for a new kind of efficiency, and our bearings are proven to be able to withstand these tough operating requirements and reduce unexpected downtime. As our rail customers push the limits of what’s possible, we will continue to innovate alongside of them, just like we always have.”

For more details on how Timken expertise supports the rail industry, click here.