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Train wheel

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Title: Train wheel  
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Subject: Wheelset (rail transport), Flange, Eschede train disaster, Kuhn slide, Schwartzkopff-Eckhardt II bogie
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Train wheel

Flanged railway wheel
Railroad car wheels are affixed to a straight axle, such that both wheels rotate in unison. This is called a wheelset.

A train wheel or rail wheel is a type of lathe, to a specific profile before being pressed onto an axle. All wheel profiles need to be periodically monitored to ensure proper wheel-rail interface. Improperly trued wheels increase rolling resistance, reduce energy efficiency and may create unsafe operation. A railroad wheel typically consists of two main parts: the wheel itself, and the tire (or tyre) around the outside. A rail tire is usually made from steel, and is typically heated and pressed onto the wheel, where it remains firmly as it shrinks and cools. Monobloc wheels do not have encircling tires, while resilient rail wheels have a resilient material, such as rubber, between the wheel and tire.

Wheel geometry and flange

Railway wheel flange (left)
Tram wheel flange (right)

Most train wheels have a conical geometry, which is the primary means of keeping the train's motion aligned with the track. Train wheels have a flange on one side to keep the wheels, and hence the train, running on the rails, when the limits of the geometry based alignment are reached, e.g. due to some emergency or defect. See Hunting oscillation. Some wheels have a cylindrical geometry, where flanges are essential to keep the train on the rail track.

Wheel arrangement

Wheel-related topics

  • Driving wheel: A wheel in contact with the rail that also propels a locomotive.
  • Bogie
  • Flat: A wheel defect where the tread of a wheel has a flat spot and is no longer round; flats can be heard as regular clicking or banging noises when the wheel passes by. This is caused either by a locked bearing, or a brake that was not fully released before the car was moved, dragging the wheel without turning.
  • Pony truck: A two-wheel truck (US) or bogie (UK) at the front of a locomotive
  • Sand: granular material poured on the rail in front of the drive wheels to improve traction. (Sandite is a more specialised form for a similar purpose.)
  • Slippery rail: The condition of fallen leaves or other debris lying on and clinging to a railroad track that could cause train wheel slippage, resulting in premature wheel wear and train delays.
  • Torpedo (US): A small explosive device strapped to the top of the rail to alert an approaching train of danger ahead. A torpedo creates a loud noise upon contact with a locomotive wheel, signaling the engineer to reduce speed to 20 mph or less; the train cannot resume its original speed until it has traveled at least a mile beyond where it encountered the device. Traditionally used in pairs to ensure that the sound registered with train crews, torpedoes today are essentially obsolete as modern locomotive cabs' soundproof construction renders the devices useless. (UK:Detonator)
  • Trailing wheel
  • Wheel Climb: The process of a wheel climbing up and often off the inside or gauge side of the rail. It is a major source of derailments. Wheel climb is more likely to occur in curves with wheels whose flanges are worn or have improper angles. See Rail adhesion.
  • Wheel Flange: The inner section of a wheel that rides between the two rails. The angle between the wheel tread and flange is often specific to the rail to prevent wheel climb and possible derailments. See Rail adhesion. The wheel flange is part of the wheel tire.
  • Wheel Tapper: An historical railway occupation; people employed to tap train wheels with hammers and listen to the sound made to determine the integrity of the wheel; cracked wheels, like cracked bells, do not sound the same as their intact counterparts. The job was associated with the steam age, but they still operate in some eastern European countries. Modern planned maintenance procedures have mostly obviated the need for the wheel-tapper.
  • Wheel Tread: The slightly conical section (often with a 1 in 20 slope) of a railroad wheel that is the primary contact point with the rail. See Rail adhesion.
  • Wheelset: the wheel-axle assembly of a rail vehicle. The frame assembly beneath each end of a car, railcar or locomotive that holds the wheelsets is called the bogie (or truck).

Parts of a rail wheel

Crank pin: A pin protruding from a wheel into a main or coupling rod.

Wheels for road-rail vehicles

The small rail wheels fitted to road-rail vehicles allow them to be stored away when the vehicle is in road-going mode.

Wheels used for Road-rail vehicles are normally smaller than those found on other types of rollingstock (such as locomotives or carriages). This is because the wheel has to be stored clear of the ground when the vehicle is in road-going mode - Such wheels can be as small as 245 mm (9.65 in) in diameter. In Australia, wheels for Road-rail vehicles should comply with the requirements of AS7514.4 which is the standard for infrastructure maintenance vehicle wheels.


The wheels of many rail vehicles, especially steam locomotives and older types of rolling stock are fitted with steel tires (or tyres in British English, Australian English and others) to provide a replaceable wearing element on a costly wheel.

These steel tires should not be confused with the tires fitted to rubber-tyred metros and people movers, for example some lines of the Paris Métro, the Mexico City Metro, the Caracas Metro, the Montreal Metro, Sapporo Subway, Seattle Center Monorail, Taipei Rapid Transit System and the Santiago Metro.

Tire installation

Steel tire on a steam locomotive's driving wheel is heated with gas flames to expand and loosen it so it may be slipped over the wheel.

Replacing a whole wheel because of a worn contact surface is expensive, so older types of railway wheels were fitted with replaceable steel tires. The tire is a hoop of steel that is fitted around the steel wheel centre. The tire is machined with a shoulder on its outer face to locate it on the wheel centre, and a groove on the inside diameter of the flange face. The inside diameter of the tire is machined to be slightly less than the diameter of the wheel centre on which it is mounted, to give an interference fit.

The tire is fitted by heating to a controlled temperature, avoiding overheating. This causes the tire to expand. The wheel centre, usually already mounted on the axle, is lowered into the tire which is flange side up. The tire cools, and the retaining ring (a shaped steel bar rolled into a hoop) is fitted into the groove. Hydraulically operated rolls swage the groove down on to the retaining ring.

The tire is primarily held in place by its interference fit. The shoulder on the outside and the retaining ring also keep the tire in place if the interference fit is lost. This is most often due to severe drag braking down a gradient, or due to an error in the machining.

Removal of a worn tire is by machining out the retaining ring and heating the tire to relax the interference fit.

Some steam locomotive wheels had tires bolted through the rim, or with a second smaller shoulder machined on the inside face of the tire. This shoulder was severely limited in size as it had to pass over the wheel centre for assembly.

Tires of different designs were fitted to wheels with wooden centers (Mansell wheels in the UK) and to various other types.

The use of tires is becoming obsolete. The utilisation of traditional freight wagons was often so low that tires never needed renewal, so it was cheaper to fit a one-piece ("monoblock") wheel. Monoblock wheels are lighter and offer better integrity as there is no tire to come loose. Modern flow-line repair lines are disrupted by the inspection of the wheel centre once the tire is removed, possibly generating extra rectification work, and the need to make each tire fit its allocated wheel centre. Monoblock wheels are now more economical.

Causes of Damage

The most usual cause of damage is drag braking on severe gradients. Because the brake blocks apply directly on the tire, it is heated up, relaxing the interference fit. It is not feasible to fit the tire with such a heavy interference as to eliminate this risk entirely, and the retaining ring will ensure that the tire can only rotate on the wheel center, maintaining its alignment. In rare instances the rotation could be so severe as to wear the retaining ring down till it breaks, which could result in derailment.

Severe braking or low adhesion may stop the rotation of the wheels while the vehicle is still moving can cause a flat spot on the tire and localized heat damage to the tire material.

Tires are reasonably thick, about 3 inches (76 mm), giving plenty of room for wear. Worn tires or tires with flats are re-profiled on a wheel lathe if there is sufficient thickness of material remaining.

See also


ISO 1005 Parts 1-9 BS 5892 Parts 1-6 AS7414.4

External links

  • Train wheels
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