Accurate prediction of railroad vehicle performance requires detailed formulations of wheel-rail contact models. In the past, most dynamic simulation tools used an offline wheel-rail contact element based on look-up tables that are used by the main simulation solver. Nowadays, the use of an online nonlinear three-dimensional wheel-rail contact element is necessary in order to accurately predict the dynamic performance of high speed trains. Recently, the Federal Railroad Administration, Office of Research and Development has sponsored a project to develop a general multibody simulation code that uses an online nonlinear three-dimensional wheel-rail contact element to predict the contact forces between wheel and rail. In this paper, several nonlinear wheel-rail contact formulations are presented, each using the online three-dimensional approach. The methods presented are divided into two contact approaches. In the first Constraint Approach, the wheel is assumed to remain in contact with the rail. In this approach, the normal contact forces are determined by using the technique of Lagrange multipliers. In the second Elastic Approach, wheel/rail separation and penetration are allowed, and the normal contact forces are determined by using Hertz’s Theory. The advantages and disadvantages of each method are presented in this paper. In addition, this paper discusses future developments and improvements for the multibody system code. Some of these improvements are currently being implemented by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). In the accompanying “Part 2” and “Part 3” to this paper, numerical examples are presented in order to demonstrate the results obtained from this research.

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