Composites are moving into new applications for rail and bus travel.

For more than 50 years, thermoset composite producer Norplex-Micarta has done a steady business in manufacturing materials for mass transit applications, including train and light rail braking systems and electrical insulation for overhead rails. But today, the company’s markets are expanding beyond that relatively narrow niche into other applications like walls, roofs and floors.

Dustin Davis, Norplex-Micarta’s director of business development, sees an increasing number of such opportunities in rail and other mass transit applications for his company and other composite manufacturers and suppliers in the coming years. There are several reasons for this anticipated growth. One is Europe’s adoption of fire standard EN 45545-2, which imposes more stringent fire, smoke and toxicity (FST) requirements on mass transit. Using phenolic resin systems, composites manufacturers can incorporate the necessary fire and smoke-retardancy properties into their products.

In addition, bus, subway and train operators are beginning to realize the benefits that composite materials offer in reducing noise vibration and harshness. “If you’ve ever been on a subway, you’ve heard that metal panel that is rattling,” Davis says. “If the panel is made from a composite material, it tends to dampen that sound, so you get quieter trains.”

The lighter weight of composites also makes them attractive to mass transit operators interested in reducing the use of fuel and/or extending their operating range.

Market research company Lucintel agrees with Davis’ predictions on composites’ greater role in mass transit. In a September 2018 report, Lucintel projected that the global market for composite materials for mass transportation and off-road vehicles will grow at an annual rate of 4.6 percent between 2018 and 2023, reaching a value of $1 billion by the end of that period. The opportunities will come in a wide variety of applications, including exterior, interior, under-the-hood and powertrain parts and electrical components.

The new parts that Norplex-Micarta is now producing are currently being tested on light rail lines in the U.S. In addition, the company continues to focus on electrification systems, taking continuous fiber materials and joining them with faster curing resin systems. “You can lower the cost and increase the output and bring the full capabilities of an FST phenolic to market,” Davis explains.

While composites can be more expensive than similar metal parts, Davis says that cost isn’t the deciding factor in the applications they are working on. “We are focused on areas where we can displace other materials that just don’t meet the customers’ requirements,” he says. “We are looking at providing a functionality enhancement.”