Ensuring safety at level crossings has always been a priority for the rail industry. The CRC for Rail Innovation has been facilitating a national trial of adopting low-cost level crossing warning devices (LCLCWDs), which are projected to improve the regional rail network by allowing more level crossings to be upgraded from passive to active controls.
Dr Chris Wullems, Postdoctoral Research Fellow from Rail CRC/Queensland University of Technology shares with us the benefits of low-cost level crossing warning devices, the importance of a nationally consistent approach to research and how research can support the 5 Es in improving safety at level crossings.
To what degree can technology mitigate against risks at level crossings? Can new research and technology engineer people out of the equation?
Chris Wullems: Level crossings are part of complex socio-technical systems. Technology in itself is not a silver bullet. While technology can be used to improve safety, a system’s approach needs to be taken to determine whether a given technology is appropriate, or is going to be effective in a given level crossing context.
Human factors research is providing tools that can be used to better integrate engineering and human factors processes, to develop technologies that are optimized for humans, rather than adapting humans to work with the technology, which often result in unintended consequences.
The CRC for Rail Innovation has been facilitating a national trial of low-cost level crossing technologies. What are some of the benefits of a low-cost system? As an average, how do these costs equate to the other operational costs that operators and track owners face?
Chris Wullems: The adoption of low-cost level crossing warning devices (LCLCWDs) has the potential to improve the safety of the regional rail network by allowing more level crossings to be upgraded from passive to active controls.
LCLCWDs can provide a theoretical lifecycle cost reduction of between 50 and 75 percent of the baseline cost of existing type-approved warning devices (e.g. warning devices based on track circuits, grade predictors).
The resulting cost savings could mean that for the same cost of an upgrade program for 10 country level crossings with passive controls, somewhere between 20 and 40 similar crossings could be upgraded to active controls using LCLCWDs.
To an outsider, it can sometimes seem that research and new products are developed in silos. Both in Australia and internationally, how much industry collaboration and information sharing is involved in researching new technologies for safety?
Chris Wullems: To our knowledge, the CRC for Rail Innovation is conducting the first national trial of level crossing technology with a nationally consistent approach to data collection in Australia.
The trial project involves all major Australian railways and departments of transportation. It has developed a nationally consistent set of requirements for low-cost level crossing warning devices (LCLCWDs), and is trialing LCLCWDs in three jurisdictions using a consistent trialing methodology.
This approach enables the safety qualification data collected in each of the jurisdictions to be pooled together in support of future type approval processes (should individual railways be interested in pursuing the LCLCWDs being trialed).
Having a nationally consistent approach to research and evaluation activities provides significant savings to railways as multiple organisations share the financial burden as well as avoiding duplication of effort. From the technology supplier’s perspective, a nationally consistent approach provides access to a larger market, reduces overhead related to different requirements and type approval processes for each jurisdiction, and ultimately can provide better pricing to the Australian rail industry.
With the CRC for Rail Innovation closing at the end of June 2014, the Australasian Centre of Rail Innovation (ACRI) is the new independent Australasian research entity that will ensure the legacy of the CRC for Rail Innovation’s research and will be able to facilitate timely and responsive research for industry with a consistent approach.
“Why re-invent the wheel?” was one of the themes that emerged at last year’s rail safety conference. Are any other countries looking at installing the technologies and products developed in Australia or are the specifications, standards and conditions country-specific?
Chris Wullems: In recent years there has been increased operational experience with low-cost level crossing technologies in Europe. For example, the Swiss Federal Railways have put a low-cost level crossing warning device (LCLCWDs) based on the Swiss “Micro” specification into service. Network Rail in the UK have also been trialing LCLCWDs for pedestrian level crossings.
The CRC for Rail Innovation’s national trial program conducted an extensive review of literature and contacted many of the European suppliers with LCLCWDs in service during the request for offer phase of the tendering process. Some of these overseas systems are being trialed in Australia. Trialing of railway technologies in the target operational and environmental context is important in ensuring the systems perform as intended, even if proven in other countries.
While re-invention of technology is an issue, perhaps a bigger obstacle to adoption of new technology is the fragmented type approval process that differs in each jurisdiction, creating a significant cost overhead for suppliers to enter the Australian market. Additionally, in the context of low-cost technologies, there are often obstacles in developing a robust safety argument within current regulatory and legal frameworks to support their adoption.
At last year’s workshop on rail level crossing safety, Aidan Nelson remarked that “the safest level crossing is always one that doesn’t exist” only to promptly add that the “nirvana of no level crossings is but a dream”. Given the cost and operational hurdles involved with removing level crossings, what’s the next best option?
Chris Wullems: The commonly cited 5 Es – Enabling, Education, Engineering, Enforcement and Evaluation, are the key elements of a comprehensive level crossing strategy and are fundamental to improving safety at level crossings. Investing in research is a key enabler of the 5 Es. Research can inform the design of effective countermeasures, provide an evidence-based approach to education and enforcement campaigns, and improve our understanding of level crossing risk and its contributing factors. It also supports evaluation of campaigns and countermeasures.
Dr Chris Wullems will be delivering a presentation on level crossing safety in more detail at RISSB’s Rail Safety conference on Wednesday 26th March, at the Four Points by Sheraton in Sydney.