College of Engineering Students Compete in UK Railway Challenge

Date Published: 
August 14, 2014

Teaming up with students from England’s University of Birmingham, two Lee College Engineering graduate students took part in the third annual Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Railway Challenge this summer, and learned that building a working electric locomotive is a real challenge.

Civil Engineering masters students Ben Gorman and Matt Washing traveled to Leicestershire, England, in June for the event, which pitted five teams against each other in the design and construction of a 15th scale locomotive.

The University of Birmingham team had participated in the two previous Railway Challenges and had been working on the 2014 locomotive for several months. Gorman arrived to begin working with the team several weeks before the competition.

“Everyone participated in various tasks in order to get the train put together,” Gorman said. “My primary job was writing code for the motor controller. I spent a lot of time learning the programming language Microbasic, which was a steep learning curve for me. The main purpose of the script was to make the locomotive run with inputs from a remote control that I built. In addition to the remote control, the script also controlled regenerative braking.”

The locomotives were judged on five challenges, which were the emergency breaking challenge, the energy storage challenge that involved the locomotives storing energy during braking and then using it to drive the locomotive forward again, the noise challenge, the traction challenge, and the ride comfort challenge.

Washing joined the team the week before the competition.

“At that point, my involvement in the team was a lot of manual labor for the construction of the locomotive,” Washing said. “For research relating to my own master’s thesis, I also began learning more about software that simulates the motion of a train.”

For its previous two locomotives, the Birmingham team had used hydrogen as its power source. For 2014 they decided to again go with a Hydrail locomotive.

“There’s no stipulations in the rules on how you get your power,” Washing said. “You just have to have some sort of power you can transfer to an electric motor. The other teams had gasoline combustion engines. We went with the alternative fuel of a hydrogen fuel cell that charges batteries. The motors then draw their electricity from the batteries.”

The hydrogen fuel cell was a great advantage when it came to the noise portion of the competition. “With hydrogen fuel and no engine we easily won the noise challenge,” Gorman said. “No one even came close.”

The competition was held at Stapleford Miniature Railway in Leicestershire, England, which was about 90 minutes away from the University of Birmingham. The Birmingham team worked until 3 a.m. the night before they left, and then some members were up to 2 a.m. and others never did go to bed the night they arrived. All the hard work and long hours paid off, as their locomotive was running great.

“It was running so well,” Gorman said. “It was quick, powerful and was a blast to ride. We did the first two challenges the first day and everything went well.”

The remaining challenges on the second day included regenerative breaking, and the team decided to make a change to try to improve its results.

“Our locomotive had two electric motors,” Gorman said, “and we decided to see how applying reverse current to one of the motors would change our regeneration. Instead of amplifying the recharge, though, it caused a bad bearing to seize up which resulted in a catastrophic failure of the motor. The motor then started acting like a break.”

The problem resulted in the team backing out of the regenerative braking challenge. They did complete the traction challenge, only reaching a maximum speed of 10 kilometers per hour, which was down from 15 kilometers per hour they were clocking before the motor problem.

“We didn’t do as well as we had hoped,” Gorman said, “We were however, the only team that didn’t break down on the track. Because we departed and returned to the station on time for all the challenges, we received the reliability award. It was a lot of fun. It was like a big hobby project.”

The project was a real learning experience for everyone involved.

“I learned that when building a locomotive there are a lot of setbacks,” Washing said. “Every team had setbacks. It was part of the learning process. It was the best way to learn what not to do.”

There was also a lot of knowledge gained that will help Washing with his research at UNC Charlotte. “I learned a lot that will apply to my thesis,” he said. “All on my work is computer-based simulation and building a physical locomotive was helpful in getting to see everything in action. And there are not many hydrogen locomotives in the world, so it was great to get to see one.”

The UNC Charlotte students’ participation was the result of a research collaboration formed this year between the Lee College of Engineering’s Infrastructure, Design, Environment, and Sustainability (IDEAS) Center, Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, and the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) at the University of Birmingham (UK). UNC Charlotte is in the process of creating a railway engineering research program and associated education programs, and the BCRRE is assisting with curriculum development and research proposals in areas of shared interest.

For more information on see Ben Gorman’s blog from the event at