Nowhere is this truer than in China, where the country is pouring more than $500 billion into its rail infrastructure by 2020 to improve connectivity. A Bloomberg News report released in December 2016 explains that the high-speed rail network will span more than 18,650 miles, cover 80 percent of the country’s major cities and boost economic growth by connecting people in rural communities to urban jobs. This announcement came at a time when China already holds the world’s longest network of high-speed trains, with more than 12,400 miles of route in service.

penso-door

Penso Group produces a press-formed, prepreg composite rail door, featuring phenolic resins and an integrated core sandwich panel. The door is lighter in weight than existing aluminum doors and has been approved for use in London’s Underground. Photo credit: Penso Group

This rapid growth presents a big opportunity for train car manufacturers and composite companies, such as Aliancys. The Swiss company has supplied Chinese train manufacturers like Changchun Lu Tong Rail Vehicle Co. Ltd. with fire-retardant resin systems for non-structural train components, including front exterior trim, interior walls and components, and integrated sanitary units, all certified to relevant standards. The use of fire-resistant composite components has gained exposure, garnering interest in recent years in the possibility of replacing metal structural components with CFRP.

However, Kapadia says that the rail industry remains hesitant to integrate composites into structural applications just yet. “For anything that carries load – like the main structure of the train – they’re reluctant to use composites because of the fire risk,” he says. The issue surrounding fire, he adds, is not that the train shouldn’t burn, but it should not start burning before people can get out. “So even if you have a metal train – and most trains are made out of aluminum these days – that will still burn. But you have some time to get passengers off the train before that starts to happen.”

Instead, Kapadia suggests that manufacturers continue to push the boundaries for the use of composites in interior products. By getting new resins and technologies into these applications, they’ll be able to point to successful examples over time that will build the case for more widespread use.

“I think we’re going to see continued use on secondary structures and interior structures, and that’s going to build confidence for greater use of composites,” Kapadia says. “If a train operator says, ‘We’re looking at a composite door here; it’s been working for 20 years, we’ve had a fire, and it did fine,’ that confidence buildup with the train operators and the train manufacturers will be key to greater use of composites in the rail industry.”