Wireless sensors to prevent incidents

Richard Furlong - City Surveys Group

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Published: 27th September 2016

This Article was Written by: Richard Furlong - City Surveys Group


A new development in wireless technology may prevent future fatal incidents and near misses on rail crossings following research published by the University of Huddersfield’s Institute of Railway Research (IRR). The introduction of wireless sensors on the approach to level crossings is hoped to improve safety and make radical cost savings for the UK’s rail operator, Network Rail (NR).   

But isn’t existing level crossing provision sufficient? Despite much-improved processes and technology at these rail-safety weak points, some experts think there are still too many incidents occurring, due in large part to failsafe issues surrounding the gated – many claim outdated – technology.

The cost of maintenance and upkeep of level crossings is also an ongoing bone of contention, especially with Network Rail under mounting pressure to reduce spending.  

However, Network Rail have already greatly improved safety at level crossings by prioritising crossing safety, for example by upgrading existing, outdated crossing systems and by raising public awareness with a string of hard hitting ad campaigns.

In a report released earlier this year, it showed a marked reduction in incidents over a five year period. Sadly, the reduced figure is still too high; almost 400 incidents of car or pedestrian near-misses occurred between 2015 and 2016.

Network Rail manage several thousand gated level crossings in the UK and state that, while much has been done to reduce the risk of accidents, it is still a significant area for future improvement. They are committed to reducing the risks of rail crossing.

Is wireless technology the answer?

A project funded by the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) has suggested that low-budget track sensors might radically change the current approach to level crossing safety.

Activated by vibration as trains approach, sensors would automatically activate the gates, removing the need for human operation (by a signaller or level crossing manager) completely.

The research project, being carried out at the University of Huddersfield’s Institute of Railway Research (IRR), has undertaken widespread testing and concludes that it is possible to use self-powered sensors to control level crossings on the railway.

It is not new technology, according to the IRR; other industries, such as medical, gas and oil, have seen the successful application of these sensors. Like the railway, these are industries for which is it critical to create reliable failsafe systems to ensure staff and public safety.  

Sensor technology comes with several advantages:

  • It is wireless, allowing for quick and easy installation and minimal ongoing maintenance;
  • The lack of wiring also lessens the risk of damage and theft;
  • Sensors can be used for other diagnostic processes including monitoring track conditions and alerting Network Rail to problems;  
  • ‘Downtime’ – dangerous as well as costly – is also reduced; if a sensor doesn’t work, the other sensors communicate to close the link in the network.

The IRR are now seeking industry backing in order to bring the product and technology to fruition.

Boost to the UK economy?

According to the IRR’s Professor in Railway Safety, Dr Coen Van Gulijk, the savings from the implementation of the new tech could be considerable.

Dr Van Gulijk noted that the current gated systems are ‘expensive because they are made to be failsafe’. He said with the research, “we have shown that we can use many cheap sensors and still guarantee fail safety.”

The current network of around 6,500 crossings incur running and maintenance costs in the region of half a million pounds per year. A comparative wireless system may slash the cost to a mere twenty thousand pounds.

Level crossing safety specialist, Peter Hughes, who supported the IRR research team, stated that: “the technology would have global potential.”

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