On The Level with Safe Crossing Technology

17 May 2011 (Last Updated May 17th, 2011 18:30)

As incidents rise at rail level crossings in the UK, new technologies are surfacing promising to make them safer. We take a look at some of the emerging methods that promise to both increase safety at level crossings and deter misuse.

On The Level with Safe Crossing Technology

Collisions and accidents on level crossings present a clear and real danger that is common to rail lines across the globe. There has been extensive work to publicise the danger through advertisement campaigns across media platforms, designed to increase public awareness of the danger. Although there has been a noticeable decrease to incidents, the figures are still high.

In 2009, there were a total of 14 collisions between trains and other vehicles at level crossings in the UK, resulting in 13 deaths. This was compounded, however, by a total number of 3,244 reports of misuse or errors at level crossings in the same year, mainly relating to pedestrians. These results led Network Rail chief executive Iain Coucher to be particularly damning of the general public, saying, "Motorists are too often playing Russian roulette with a 200t train - and tragically some lose their lives gambling at level crossings by running red lights or dodging around barriers."

This is not a problem unique to the UK. In Australia, there are approximately 100 crashes between motor vehicles and trains each year and railway level crossing crashes are deemed one of the most serious safety issues faced by the rail system in Australia, resulting in, on average, 22 deaths per year.

Signals and receivers

Last month, an innovative system designed to warn drivers about approaching level crossings was demonstrated and tested in Australia. NFA Innovations collaborated with VicRoads and the Department of Business and Innovation to deliver the proof-of-concept project and develop the radio break-in collision warning system.

"In Australia, there are approximately 100 crashes between motor vehicles and trains each year."

Declaring the system as the first of its kind in Australia, Victoria minister for public transport Terry Mulder said, "Part of this effort is investigating smart, innovative and intelligent transport warning systems... which will become increasingly important in improving road safety for all Victoria citizens."

The system works by installing radio transmitters across both trains and roadside infrastructure, such as level crossing barriers, and has them transmit a localised signal. Receiver units are then fitted to the sound systems of vehicles used in the area and, upon receiving the signal broadcast by the transmitters, play a warning message to the driver alerting them of the barrier.

Field trials were conducted between March 28 and April 1 this year and tested not only the technology behind the transmitters and receivers, but also conducted behavioural studies relating to the wording and tone of the broadcasted warning message. The results of the test were hugely positive and were considered a resounding success. Deployment of the system could be carried out across Victoria within 12 months, although there are currently no plans to install the system across Australia.

Increasing public awareness

In the US, the approach has been strikingly similar by opting to increase warnings at level crossings whilst also improving the traffic flow across congested lines. Unveiled in March 2011, eight stations across the Union Pacific West Line in the US received the Another Train Warning System (ATWS) as part of a $132m project to improve safety on the line.

The system incorporates a range of best practices that are used across various other rail networks within the US and uses them to produce a comprehensive safety system. When a train approaches a station, audible and visual signals warn pedestrians of the approaching train and the system is installed with pedestrian crossing gates at station grade crossings. Pedestrians will be guided towards a gated crossing for their own safety.

ATWS incorporates a red "Danger" sign that illuminates and flashes if a train is present and another is approaching, while a white "Another Train Coming" sign illuminates steadily and further audible warnings sound continuously as long as there is more than one train in the area of the station. Furthermore, the system also allows trains to safely operate past a station, helping increase the flow of both commuter and freight traffic.

Deterrents offering a different tact

The UK, however, has opted for a different tact in response to growing figures relating to level crossing misuse. In a regional trial involving the southern counties of Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex, a purpose-built marked police van will be stationed at notable level crossings in order to provide an active deterrent.

Each van will be fitted with nine cameras, each integrated with number plate recognition and capture technology, with the aim of identifying drivers who misuse the crossing and to deter misbehaviour. One camera will also be attached to a pole capable of extending 10m high, allowing the van to operate at a distant from the crossing.

"Deployment of the system could be carried out across Victoria within 12 months."

The van will also have access to all essential police systems allowing operators to process prosecutions immediately with the aim of reducing disruption at level rail crossings, as Network Rail community safety manager Ellie Reilly said: "Many people who misuse level crossings know it is wrong and that they are taking a risk, but that doesn't seem to stop them. They think it is a victimless crime, but even if they don't actually damage the crossing, it frequently results in delays to passengers and motorists... The introduction of the camera vehicle will help deter bad behaviour and misuse."

Need for greater collaboration

A report issued by Safer European Level Crossing Appraisal and Technology (SELCAT) that examined actual and potential technologies for use at level rail crossings in 2009 identified several areas where current technologies fell short. After finding that rural and urban areas benefited from different technologies - a warning system similar to ATWS benefiting rural areas more, whereas an obstacle detection system proving far more beneficial for urban areas - SELCAT identified a key lack of collaboration between rail and road operators to form one solid technology.

The report also found that any new technology should join increased safety with cost reductions to construction and maintenance phases, and found possible solutions through the use of low cost technologies, such as LEDs and wireless communications, should be adopted because of their high potential to reduce equipment costs.