In this paper, the micro-mechanical mechanisms behind the initiation and propagation of rolling contact fatigue (RCF) damages caused by the large traction forces are investigated. This study provides a three-dimensional (3D) model for studying the rolling contact fatigue in rails. Since rolling contact fatigue is highly dependent on the rail’s steel microstructure behavior, a proper 3D approach to capture the microstructure- and orientation-dependent mechanical behavior is required. A precise material model known as crystal plasticity is used for this purpose. Additionally, a cohesive zone approach is implemented to capture the crack initiation and propagation at the grain boundaries. Using the 3D finite element model which is developed for this study, we evaluate the effect of various parameters such as traction forces along the rail, and also the normal forces on the RCF response. The results reveal that the RCF cracks initiate slightly below the rail surface. These cracks start propagating toward the rail surface when the contact force is applied in repeated load cycles. The results also indicate that the depth at which RCF initiates depends on the ratio between the longitudinal traction forces and the normal loads. With larger traction forces, the cracks initiate closer, or at the rail surface, whereas larger normal loads promote the cracks initiation beneath the surface.

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