How recycled plastic is being used to make railway sleepers

There is a world of opportunity when it comes to developing new products made from recycled glass, plastic, electronic waste, organics, concrete, brick and rubber.

Creating any new product for an established market can be a challenge, but using recycling materials adds another dimension. To facilitate the development of new and innovative products, we support businesses and councils to partner with research institutes (mostly universities) to develop and create products that use large volumes of recycled materials.

Integrated Recycling, a recycled plastics manufacturer based in Mildura, has created the Duratrack rail sleeper, which is made from 100 per cent recycled plastic. They partnered with the Monash Institute of Railway Technology to research, develop, test and produce the recycled railway sleepers that have since been installed on Metro and V/Line train lines in Victoria – and on Queensland Rail tracks in the sunshine state.

The more I dug into it, the more I realised this is a real game changer. We change out thousands of sleepers every year, so this could be a real alternative for us, and a much more environmentally friendly one.

– Catherine Baxter, Chief Operating Officer, Metro Trains Melbourne

 

Audio transcript (Word, 23kB)

The market opportunity

Victoria is home to nearly 1000 kilometres of metropolitan rail lines and more than 3,500 kilometres of regional rail managed by V/Line, with thousands of sleepers replaced annually. Queensland Rail’s network uses approximately 2.4 million timber sleepers. They are replacing up to 700,000 of these with Duratrack sleepers, over a five-year period.

Both states present a significant market opportunity for Duratrack as rail authorities seek sleepers that are longer lasting and more environmentally-friendly than timber and concrete sleepers. There is also potential for Duratrack to be supplied across Australia and for international export.

 Research and development

Integrated Recycling and the Monash Institute of Railway Technology (Monash IRT) have been working together since 2015, with funding support from us to research, develop and test recycled railway sleepers.

Monash IRT are experts in track and vehicle railway research. Integrated Recycling is part of Integrated Packaging Group and are experts in producing plastic packaging and recovering these materials to produce new products. This collaboration has been the crucial element of progressing the design of the Duratrack sleeper.

The research team tested different types of recycled plastics in the mix, putting them through rigorous testing processes to meet the safety and product requirements for rail in Australia. After many iterations, they created the Duratrack recycled railway sleeper, which can last up to 50 years and outperforms traditional timber sleepers that only last for 15 years.

Monash University and Integrated Recycling received two grants from our Research, Development and Demonstration program valued at $300,000.

This project has created a strong relationship between Integrated Recycling and Monash University that has validated the Duratrack sleepers in-track performance and has accelerated the acceptance of a new product for trial by rail operators.

– Stephen Webster, General Manager, Integrated Recycling

A V/Line train passes in the background as railways sleepers made from recycled plastic are installedTrialling the product in track

A crucial element of product development is to move out of the laboratory and trial the product in a real-world application.

The Duratrack sleepers have been installed at multiple sites across Australia, with the first installed on the Mornington steam train railway in Victoria.

Following this, the sleepers have now been installed on the Puffing Billy, Walhalla and Castlemaine tourist and heritage railways. It was a significant milestone when nearly 200 Duratrack sleepers were installed at Richmond Station as part of the metropolitan network and 120 sleepers were installed for V/Line trains at the Wydnham Vale train depot.

Queensland Rail provided approval for in-track testing, resulting in 150 sleepers installed near Chinchilla and Grantham in the Lockyer Valley in October 2018.

The Duratrack railway sleepers will continue to be monitored at Richmond station, the Wydnham Vale train depot and Queensland Rail sites for 12 to 18 months. Monash IRT and Integrated Recycling are looking for additional trial sites within Victoria, to further understand the performance of Duratrack sleepers in different rail applications and expand the number of recycled plastic sleepers being used.

The project is a great example of how government, industry, universities and rail authorities can work together to create a circular economy.

Environmental benefits

There are several advantages to using recycled plastic in rail sleepers:

  • Each sleeper contains up to 85% recycled content (100% of this is recycled plastic)
  • Every 30 Duratrack sleepers use one tonne of waste plastic, including flexible and rigid plastics from pipes, drums, agricultural films and produce boxes
  • 45 tonnes of recovered plastic will be used for every kilometre of track using Duratrack sleepers
  • Duratrack has 50-year product life (in comparison, timber sleepers are replaced approximately every 15 years)
  • Duratrack sleepers are resistant to termites, water rot, fungal infection, end splitting and UV rays
  • Compared to concrete or steel sleepers, Duratrack sleepers require less energy to manufacture and thereby produce significantly less greenhouse gases
  • Duratrack sleepers are recyclable at the end of their lifespan.

To learn more about the testing and development of the sleepers, visit the Duratrack Sleepers page on the Integrated Recycling website.

Challenges and opportunities

Developing the Duratrack railway sleepers came with challenges and opportunities. The aim was to ensure the product was durable for 50 years.

Microplastics

During the production of a Duratrack sleeper, an additive is used to make the product UV resistant. This also reduces the risk of the product fading and chipping – and due to its density will not break into micro-plastics (classified as plastic less than 5mm in diameter).

Performance under high temperatures

While heat can cause plastic to expand, the Duratrack sleepers have been developed to address this. Three years of rigorous testing and monitoring under extreme temperatures has shown the sleepers meet all applicable Australian standards for thermal expansion.

Receiving approval for use

It can take a long time to develop a new product and the challenges are even greater when it comes to rail, where thousands of passengers use these services every day. Through rigorous laboratory testing the Duratrack sleeper has now received provisional type approval from both Metro Trains Melbourne, V/Line and Queensland Rail. Full type approval will be given pending in-track performance testing. The next challenge will be understanding its performance in different applications and rolling out more Duratrack sleepers with approved rail authorities.

Upscaling production

Integrated Recycling received a grant from the Resource Recovery Infrastructure Fund of $330,000 in 2018 to support upscaling the production of the sleepers. This will fund the first stage of the Duratrack production line in Mildura with a capacity to manufacture between 50,000 and 80,000 recycled plastic railway sleepers annually.

Timeline for developing the recycled plastic railway sleepers

2014 The Duratrack sleeper concept was born when Public Transport Victoria were seeking an alternative sleeper to timber sleepers for its tourism and heritage lines.
2016 Monash IRT and Integrated Recycling received $100,000 from Sustainability Victoria’ to undertake product testing and mix design development in the laboratory.
2016 The first Duratrack sleepers were installed on the Mornington steam train railway, which operates as a tourist attraction.
February 2018
Monash’s laboratory testing results concluded the plastic sleeper designs would meet the specifications of rail operators, including Queensland Rail and the Victorian Tourist and Heritage rail sector.
October 2018 Queensland Rail provided type approval for in-track testing, resulting in 150 sleepers installed near Chinchilla and Grantham in the Lockyer Valley. The trial was conducted and monitored for approximately 12–18 months.
October 2018 – ongoing Sustainability Victoria provided an additional $199,200 to Monash IRT through our Research, Development and Demonstrations grants to assess the performance of the sleepers in mainline applications to validate the design and assess noise and vibration characteristics in comparison to concrete sleepers.
26 October 2018 Metro Trains Melbourne provided provisional type approval for the sleepers, allowing them to be used on Melbourne’s metropolitan railways network.
December 2018 Integrated Recycling received $330,000 from the Resource Recovery Infrastructure Fund to build the first stage of the Duratrack production line with a capacity to produce between 50,000 and 80,000 recycled plastic railway sleepers per year at its Mildura facility.
March 2019 Integrated Recycling submitted to V/Line for type approval (at the request of Rail Projects Victoria).
22 June 2019 192 Duratrack sleepers were installed at Richmond train station, replacing timber sleepers. The sleepers will be monitored for performance by Metro Trains Melbourne over an 18-month period.
23 July 2019 120 Duratrack sleepers were installed on tracks at a train depot near Wyndham Vale station, replacing concrete sleepers. The installation was undertaken by Western Program Alliance on behalf of V/Line.
September 2019 V/Line provided type approval for the Duratrack sleeper in train depot sites.

Contact us

If you have an innovative product you want to develop using recycled materials, get in touch with us. We often have grants available and if not, we can provide advice and guidance.

Contact our Environmental Project Advisor, Jean Young on 03 8626 8768 or email jean.young@sustainability.vic.gov.au.