The lateral stability of the continuous welded rail (CWR) depends on a number of parameters which contribute to the progressive loss of the initial alignment of the track and its consequent predisposition to deform sideways, gradually or sharply, with serious risks for the safety both of passengers and operators. Different types of initial lateral defect, in terms of shape and size, are introduced by many authors in their own numerical and analytical model, but essentially all of them can be traced back — except for small “personalizations” — to the model proposed by Andrew Kish, who hypothesized the existence of a misalignment defect having the shape of a sine curve extended for half-wavelength, characterized by amplitude and wavelength values typical of the USA railroads. Moreover, all previous studies focused their attention on the introduction, in a geometrically perfect railway track, of a single defect confined in a zone of finite dimensions and having a rather simple geometry which qualitatively approximates the real defect, with the aim of simplifying the calculation of the buckling temperatures of the track associated with such geometry.

In this paper, it was preliminarily analyzed the way the defect introduced in the track affects the critical temperature values. It started with a defect created artificially, applying to a geometrically perfect track and in the absence of thermal loads, a lateral displacement in the central transversal section of the track, and calculating, with the hypothesis of linear elastic behavior, the resulting deformed shape, which was assumed, after zeroing the corresponding stress field, as the input geometry for the subsequent buckling calculation. The deformed shape so obtained, being a Zimmermann deformed shape type, has no geometrical discontinuities near the defect and interprets in a natural way the defected geometry of the track, due to the dependence of its configuration on the flexural stiffness of the entire track in the lateral plane.

Afterwards, modeling was carried out taking into account the real behavior of the track after the loss of its rectilinear configuration: the defect was created simulating the response of the track to a momentary lateral load — resulting, e.g., from train passages — which succeeded to cause a permanent displacement resulting from the elastic-plastic response of the track. The deformed shape of the track obtained in this way was used as the input geometry for the calculation of the buckling temperatures, once without resetting the stress field induced in the structure by the loading–unloading hysteresis cycle, and then considering the track free from internal stresses. The results show that both the numerical model that contemplate the defect introduced “plastically”, and that where the track is free from internal stresses, lead to more conservative results against the risk of thermal buckling in railway tracks made with CWR.

A better approximation of the realistic representation of a generic defected railway track was pursued considering an indefinite number of defects distributed along the track, where each defect was characterized by different amplitude and wavelength values. The obtained results show that the presence of multiple defects further reduces the safety factor against the thermal track buckling phenomenon. The paper ends with the proposal of an evaluation criterion that takes into account the effects of multiple alignment defects on the critical buckling temperatures in continuous welded rail tracks.

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