The degradation and deformation of ballast critically affect the track geometry, safety, and passenger comfort. The increase in axle loads and train speed increases the stress applied on the ballast and exacerbates the rate of ballast degradation. This situation is more critical when tracks are built on stiff subgrades (e.g. bridges, tunnels and crossings), hence the use of energy absorbing (damping) layers in track substructure is a countermeasure to minimize track damage. In this study, a series of large-scale laboratory tests using the track process simulation testing apparatus (TPSA) is carried out to assess the performance of under sleeper pads (USP) to reduce ballast degradation and to decrease permanent deformation. When placed beneath the sleeper, the energy absorbing nature of USP reduces the energy transferred to the ballast and other substructure components. Subsequently, the ballast layer experiences less deformation and degradation. Innovative tactile surface sensors (matrix-based) are used to measure the pressure and contact area between sleeper and ballast. The measured data show that an increase in contact area between sleeper and ballast decreases the stress applied on ballast, and thus a reduction in ballast breakage and corresponding reduced ballast deformation can be achieved. Furthermore, the influence of the USP stiffness is examined and the measured data offer an insightful understanding of the role of USP for given track and loading conditions in terms of energy dissipation and reduced ballast deformation.