Railway Pads: A Quieter Solution?

Train noise can be very disruptive for commuters and for people living close to railway tracks.

London Underground is reportedly so noisy that many passengers wear noise-cancelling headphones as hearing protection, to block the sound of the trains’ screeching, the grinding of the wheels and the vibrating of the rails.

A recent study found that travelling on certain segments of the Underground network could expose passengers to concert-level noise.


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Loudest noise

According to Transport for London, the loudest section of the entire rail network is on the Northern Line, between Finchley Central and West Finchley, where a noise level of 117 decibels for a short burst was recorded. However, TFL – the local government organisation responsible for the Greater London transport system – said this fell under the guidelines for “peak” noise.

In order for noise levels to endanger hearing, they would have to be continually higher than 80 decibels. A person would have to be exposed to them for more than eight hours daily, over a period of several months, according to guidelines. It is claimed the noise on the railways will not cause “perceivable permanent” hearing loss.

Regardless of the guidelines, it can still create an unpleasant experience for passengers. Luis Gomez-Agustina, an acoustic course tutor at London’s Southbank University, said much of the rail network’s surface materials were acoustically hard and reflective.

The fact that they don’t absorb sound means the noise seems louder than it actually is, creating an even more unpleasant passenger experience. When rail tracks are particularly worn, or on sections where there are high-speed trains, the noise is usually even louder.


Impact on health

According to the guidelines set out on the official gov.uk website, there is no legal limit to the noise level from existing railways. However, if people feel the noise levels are affecting their health, they should contact their local council and ask for an investigation. Apart from traffic noise and vibration causing insomnia, medical studies suggest it can even affect the cardiovascular system as a result of the increased stress.

The combination of more frequent railway traffic and faster trains will probably lead to more disturbances in the near future, according to a study carried out by Swedish scientists. Rail transport, both for freight and passengers, is increasing, with new lines planned for environmental reasons.

If a new railway opens and the noise affects nearby residents’ property, they may be able to get their home sound-insulated. Anyone affected should ask their local council for details of the rail authority responsible and contact them directly. If particular trains at certain times or locations are causing a problem, the train operator should be informed.


How many people are affected?

According to the study carried out by the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism department, Reducing Railway Noise Pollution, 12 million people across Europe are affected by railway noise higher than 55 decibels during the day. At night, nine million people are affected by noise levels higher than 50 decibels.

It is the noise at night that can have the most detrimental effect on people’s health, due to sleep deprivation. The highest noise levels are said to be caused mainly by freight trains, especially those with older wagons or engines.


What are rail pads?

Rail companies regularly review the condition of the tracks and complete maintenance work to improve them to stop vibrations from affecting passengers and nearby residents. Now railway networks are trying to solve the problem by using innovative “rail pads” to reduce train noise.

The rail pad is a rubber mat placed between the rails and sleepers to reduce the noise of rail traffic by half. When the scheme was piloted in Belgium by the Infrabel Department for Noise and Vibration, on a 100-metre section of the line between Ostend and Brussels, two trains on the new track made only as much noise as one train.

Rubber pads feature specially shaped grooves to reduce noise as much as possible. The square pieces of rubber measure an average of 19cm x 19cm and are fixed in place between the concrete sleeper and the rail, reducing the noise made by contact between the two materials.


What are the costs?

Cost-effective in comparison with other noise reduction measures that have been tried out, the solution costs around one euro (or 85 pence) for one metre of rubber.

The scheme is being rolled out by rail operators across Europe. It has reduced the number of complaints from people living alongside railway tracks by 10%, according to Belgian rail chiefs. The aim is to reduce the number of people suffering from severe sleep disturbance by at least 9%.


Is it a “green” scheme?

The rail pad, also called a rail rubber plate, is designed using an elastic polyurethane mat. It stops the top of the sleeper from wearing down. Environmentally friendly, it increases the elasticity of the structure and reduces the effects of vibration and shock on the surrounding land. It will lead to improved passenger comfort and less wear and tear on the superstructure.

Fastened with rail bolts or screw spikes into the sleeper ties for enhanced safety, it is suitable for regular and high-speed train tracks.

Here at Sound Planning, our experienced acoustic consultants specialise in the design and installation of noise control products throughout the UK. Please contact us for details of how our bespoke solutions can help you.


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