Degraded Ballast Stiffness Characterization Using Bender Element Field Sensor and PANDA® Penetrometer

Mingu Kang, Han Wang, Issam I.A. Qamhia, Erol Tutumluer, Younes Haddani, Adam Bankston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The progressive degradation of railway ballast over time increases the degree of ballast fouling and poses significant drainability concerns leading to frequent maintenance activities. To avoid such issues, an effective and continuous characterization of the physical properties of the ballast layer is deemed necessary. This paper introduces the combined use of a bender element (BE) piezoelectric field sensor and a PANDA® dynamic cone penetrometer for periodic evaluations of ballast condition over the traffic use. To simulate various levels of ballast degradation, box tests were conducted using a dolomitic ballast material compacted in a laboratory-sized testbed with fouling indices ranging from zero to 39%. BE sensor pairs were embedded in the ballast layer to calculate the small strain modulus behavior of the ballast assessed through shear wave velocity measurements under different confinement conditions. Strength profiles of the ballast at different fouling levels were also measured using the PANDA® penetrometer. Experimental findings from both test methods indicate the existence of a dense state of ballast linked to a certain fouling index that maximized stiffness and strength characteristics of the tested ballast in dry condition. Accordingly, the potential use of BE field sensors embedded within in-service ballasted track coupled with periodic penetration testing can be a viable approach to evaluate ballast layer degradation. Various void packing conditions associated with ballast fouling levels can be linked to important ballast layer modulus and strength behavior. Further, such smart sensing of ballasted track behavior can provide long-term performance monitoring solutions for ballast cleaning and maintenance scheduling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)428-438
Number of pages11
JournalTransportation Research Record
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • ballast
  • bender element field sensor
  • degradation
  • field testing
  • penetrometer
  • railroad track
  • stiffness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering


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