The role of technology to improve rail safety

Wendy Grille Collins
By , - InnovationTransport

With the topic of rail safety being as important as it is vast, how does technology play into improving the safety of our public, commuters, train drivers and track workers?

The topic of rail safety brings to mind many different stories and emotions.  It undoubtedly means something slightly different to everyone. For the majority of us it doesn’t appear to impact our lives greatly, other than when we need to get from A to B as efficiently and as safely as possible.

We recognise that it is of significant importance but most of us take it for granted.

To the 8% of the UK population who are regular rail commuters, rail safety is all about their journey to work. We may wonder, are we really as safe as we think we are?

Luckily, most of us carry out our journeys in the usual, absent minded, routine way. But every now and then a story hits the news, such as the train crash in Santiago-De-Compostela in 2013, and our trust in the system falters.

To others, rail safety is part of their everyday lives. Those who work on the railways – track engineers, station guards, train conductors and many more – have to consider not just their own safety, but also the safety of rail customers.  For these people who keep our trains running, ensuring everyone is safe on the tracks is one of the most important parts of their day.

And as children, we all learn to “stop, look, listen, is it safe to cross the line?” Many of us live close to a train track, and track safety is drilled into children from an early age.  However, tragedies still occur due to trespassing on the tracks.  Safety at crossings and preventing unauthorised track access remains of utmost importance.

So, given the many dimensions of rail safety, where does technology come into play? And how can current and future technology help make the rails a safer place for us all?

On-board Safety

Various factors affect the suitability and safety of our rolling stock, and how our trains are driven. In the UK the control of our trains is still a mixture of automatic or semi-automatic systems and human train drivers.

The question of whether human drivers are safer or more efficient than automatic systems – or vice versa – is not one I will attempt to answer!  It is more important to ensure that a train carrying up to 700 passengers is a safe as possible; whether controlled by a human driver, an automatic system, or both working together.

At Fujitsu, we believe technology has an important role to play in enabling and empowering human beings – and train operators are no exception.

Support for the train driver

Whether a train is semi-automatic or manually driven, train drivers are tasked with immense responsibility. They must ensure the direct safety of their passengers, and also have indirect responsibility for passengers on other trains.

We believe that Internet of Things (IOT) technologies have a vital role to play for organisations seeking new ways to ensure that drivers and other operators remain alert, healthy and engaged with their work.

For example, Fujitsu’s UbiquitousWare is an IOT package combining sensors, network connectivity and software to convert captured data into valuable information.  This ecosystem provides various methods for organisations to monitor worker health and wellbeing remotely – allowing the ability to take prompt action on identified risks.

Tiredness – and the associated drop in alertness – is one of the most common challenges for drivers.

Fujitsu’s Feelythm is an IOT solution to monitor driver alertness.  Through connected data, it can help both the driver and central control teams to identify when alertness falls below acceptable levels and take action.  It can even “wake up” drivers directly in emergency scenarios such as falling asleep at the controls.

The direct feed of information and subsequent alerts to a Transport Operating Company (TOC) control room allows them to quickly deal with a drowsiness situation and ensure the safety of the passengers on board the train.

Maintenance of rolling stock

Sensor technology goes a long way towards making our trains safer whilst saving TOCs time, resources and money. Sensors can be used for many function including:

  • Improving maintenance efficiency: RFID-enabled maintenance replaces lengthy manual and visual processes to enable safety and compliance.
  • Monitoring essential mechanical equipment: Sensors and RFID tags fitted to essential mechanical equipment ensures that maintenance is performed prior to degradation, whilst taking a fraction of the time to detect, compared to previous manual and paper based checks.
  • Emergency equipment management: RFID tagging makes the routine inspection of emergency equipment a hands off process. Fujitsu’s GlobeRanger solutions allow technicians to walk through the carriage with a mobile RFID reader. It will automatically confirm that emergency equipment is present and serviceable, alerting if anything is missing.

Find out more about Fujitsu’s GlobeRanger range of sensor, IOT and RFID solutions.

Safety on the Track

The railway track is a hazardous and potentially deadly environment with fast moving trains, high voltage electricity and uncontrollable environmental elements. In 2014-15 there were 43 non-suicide related fatalities on the tracks, of which almost 10% were rail worker related. But with advances in technology, safety on the tracks can be improved for both workers and the public.

Field Worker Safety

In many instances workers may need to work in small teams or alone in the field.  The ability to measure environmental and health indicators remotely allows central management to identify increased risk situations and take rapid action to ensure safety.

For example, consider a worker who needs to climb signalling equipment to resolve a fault.  But it is 32 degrees on an August day, the engineer is already dehydrated – and has to wear full protective kit whilst carrying out the repair.  Suffering heatstroke whilst working at height could lead to a fall, with serious risk of injury.

Through sensors and smart technology, this could be highlighted as a significant risk – not by one factor in isolation, but through the combination of hot environmental temperature, erratic vital signs from the engineer and knowledge of the job they are doing.

Rapid, automated identification of the risk allows suitable action to be taken – such as asking the worker to take a rest break, or assigning another engineer to complete the job.

Overall, this kind of sensor technology, together with the ability to make sense of the data generated, could lead to a significant improvement in worker safety in hazardous environments.

Whilst working alone safely is paramount to any organization as teams move into the field, they need to be supported not only during the job but also in transit using solutions such as our drowsiness detector.  When given to a van driver for example, it can monitor a driver’s level of alertness/drowsiness, and could save lives not only in transit, but by detecting drowsiness prior to working on the tracks.

Keeping the Public safe around railway tracks

Education is an ongoing, crucial element of rail safety. Teaching the younger generations about the dangers of the train track and even in the train station is the starting point to avoiding fatalities.

But there will always be some situations – avoidable or not – where people try to cross the line, underestimate the danger, or simply fall by accident. Technology can play an important role in sensing an incident and allowing the rail organisations to react accordingly, such as:

  • CCTV is clearly not a new technology! However – we are now able to feed live CCTV footage into image processing and analysis software that can detect anomalous or risk-indicator situations in real time.  This holds the potential to greatly improve the effectiveness of CCTV as a safety mechanism – to paraphrase our Global CTO Dr Reger, sometimes the best IOT sensor is a simple camera.
  • Fujitsu also has technology that enables crisper, clearer pictures so that CCTV images in foggy or dark conditions are shown clearly to ensure that controllers are able to use them to their full capacity.
  • Sensor technology securing the railway tracks. The use for sensors in every industry is endless – and this is certainly the case for railway lines. Sensors can be used on the railway tracks to detect any anomaly such as a fallen tree or someone trying to cross the railway line.

The future for Rail Safety

Technology is undoubtedly an important element in improving rail safety. But to maximise its potential, technology companies and rail organisations need to engage regularly and openly to discuss and review potential solutions.  Initiatives such as Rail Safety Week are a vital part of this process.

IOT & “The Internet of Everything” seem, like many other technology buzz words, to be part of the future rather than part of the present.  But the truth is that these technologies do exist today, and they are already making a difference.

However, the solutions deployed to date tend to be highly bespoke, using IOT components and technology in ad-hoc configurations – only to be expected, in the early stages of technology adoption.

As the technology matures, we predict a rapid evolution towards more complete service-ready IOT solutions, to cover different industry applications – and we expect the rail and transport sectors to be early adopters, with the undoubted benefits for safety and efficiency.  We are already starting to see some of these complete solutions, such as Fujitsu’s Driver Safety / Worker Safety and Smart Field Services.

If you would like to talk about maximising rail safety with innovative and viable digital solutions, we’d love to hear from you!

 

Image credit Smudge 9000 on Flickr.

Wendy Grille Collins

Wendy Grille Collins

Head of Transport Marketing at Fujitsu UK and Ireland
Wendy Grille Collins

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