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Transport & Logistics

The next generation of railway level crossing safety technology

13 Feb 2014, by Informa Insights

According to the RISSB National Stocktake, there are 23,500 locations where roads intersect railway lines around Australia. Risks are present at every level crossing with an average of 100 incidents causing 37 deaths every year. Rail Safety 2014 will look at leveraging technology for safer outcomes and as a preview, we are joined by Peter Hughes, Director, ITS Innovations and Pat Latter, Executive Director, NFA Innovations to discuss the latest research and technology achievements in railway level crossing safety.

Q: RISSB’s Jesse Baker has highlighted that the Diolkos on the Isthmus of Corinth was possibility the first level crossing in the world and that it look 2500 years of stagnation before level crossings started to look different with closable gates in the late 1800s.

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How different are today’s level crossings?

Peter Hughes
Peter Hughes

Peter: Modern level crossings have a number of differences with the crossings that were in place in the 1800s, or even in ancient Greece. For one thing, we now have much lighter passenger trains than were common at the end of the 1800s. At that time it would have been unimaginable that a road vehicle – such as a horse cart – could lead to the derailment of a heavy steam locomotive. Today we commonly see severe damage to trains and injuries to passengers as a result of collisions at level crossings.

The vehicles are also very different: the speed of road and rail vehicles has increased; modern road vehicles are heavier than 200 years ago, and much better sound-proofed; trains are quieter and ambient noise levels in urban areas are higher. Today it is much more likely that a road user approaching a level crossing will be unaware of an on-coming rail vehicle. Coupled with increased road use it becomes more likely that an accident can occur.

As society has changed, the hazards at level crossings have become more complex; and this is a trend that we can expect to continue in the future.

Q: Rail level crossing safety is the industry’s number one safety priority. What makes level crossings unsafe?

Peter: Level crossings are the point where the railway has the least amount of control over people’s actions. When workers come into proximity with trains at marshaling yards or working at the trackside, they have been trained in railway safety and there are procedures in place to help ensure their safety. On platforms, the travelling public have gone to the station specifically to catch a train so are aware of the potential for trains arriving. This is not the case at level crossings.

In many cases road users are not even aware of the presence of a level crossing. Inside a truck or a car there can be many distractions which mean that the driver is not necessarily looking for a train. And most importantly is the fact that road users rarely expect trains to arrive at level crossings. It is therefore not uncommon for road users to say that they were taken by surprise that there was a train approaching them. Having members of the public on a railway and being surprised by an arriving train creates a very hazardous situation.

Pat Latter
Pat Latter

Pat: Rail level crossing collisions typically involve serious injury and frequently involve fatalities.  Considerable evidence highlights that the causes of level crossing accidents is quite different from other road accidents.  The majority of level crossing accidents do not involve behaviour such as excessive speed, drug and alcohol impairment, or other forms of risk taking.  Rather, fatal accidents at level crossings are caused most frequently by inadvertent driver error.

The major problems for road users at railway level crossings appear to be:

  • Complacency — associated with attributions (beliefs and knowledge) about the road transport network, rail movements and train capabilities, and the timing and operation of railway crossing signals
  • Late detection of hazard — arising from lapses or errors, and is the most critical problem faced by a road user. Without detection there can be no processing of information, and no decision process as to the most appropriate response.

For the most part we typically use visual warnings as protection at level crossings.  These are either active such as flashing lights or passive such as signs.  Modern conveniences such as vehicle insulation and sound systems often prevent drivers from hearing audible warnings.  Visual warnings rely on the driver to be concentrating and interpreting the warning in a timely manner. The problem is that driving does neither take place in isolation nor as a highly focused activity, but amidst other distractions.   Research demonstrates that distraction is not unusual but quite typical within a normal driving scenario.

Q: To what degree can technology mitigate against these risks? Can new research and technology engineer people out of the equation?

Pat:  Obviously, the best solution is to grade separate the crossings.  Simply closing crossings often has a severe consequence as traffic is therefore moved to the next crossing.  This can create congestion and queuing across the tracks. Research and technology, properly applied, can target the root causes of accidents in an affordable manner.  Risk is mitigated in a “Bang for Buck” approach.

Peter: New research can provide a number of technologies that can improve the situation. The ultimate goal may be to engineer people out of the equation. This may be achieved through autonomous road vehicles that automatically avoid collisions with trains, but even before we reach that point, research and technology can help.

Current research into human factors is looking at what causes distractions for road users and what technologies can be used to alert road users of the need to take action on the approach to level crossings.

Pixie installation at Malu RLX QLD
Pixie installation at Malu RLX QLD

Q: Pat, you’ll be discussing the Pixie system at this year’s Rail Safety conference in Sydney. How does this technology acknowledge human factors as part of the solution?

Pat: The Pixie system was developed in conjunction with human factors experts to specifically target the known causes of level crossing accidents.  These include:

  • Inattentional Blindness – whereby absence of attention leads to a failure to perceive an object that is in plain sight. This phenomenon is well documented, and has also been termed “looked but failed to see” with respect to level crossing accidents.
  • Expectation – it is well known that expectation guides our behaviour, sometimes more strongly than environmental stimuli. For road users who have the expectation that no train will be present at a crossing, the likelihood of failure to respond to traditional crossing protection is increased.
  • Perceptual Limitations – whilst we as humans gather the majority of our information through visual perception, our vision systems are subject to interference from common environmental factors such as sun glare.
  • Speed and Distance Perception – accurate decisions with respect to proceeding across a level crossing involves a complex perceptual process of relative speed and distance involving two objects that are converging at different speeds and often at angles that are not truly perpendicular. This perceptual and decision-making process is highly vulnerable to error.

In conjunction with the human factors experts, the Victorian Government and industry, the Pixie was proven to mitigate these factors and produced a high level of compliance with drivers.

Q: Pixie was awarded the Queensland Road Safety Award for Innovation in 2011. How much interaction and recognition is there between the rail and road industries in improving level crossing safety?

Pat: Level crossings are the physical interface between the road and rail transport systems, both of which operate as entirely separate entities.  That is, they have different rules, procedures and characteristics in terms of operational constraints and neither generally has advance knowledge of when the other will be encountered at the road/rail interface.  However, even though it is acknowledged that road and rail users have a duty to mitigate the risk of a collision, they cannot control actions of all others nor mitigate each other’s risks.

While individual road users are expected to be responsible for complying with traffic laws and behaving in a safe manner, it can no longer be assumed that the burden of level crossing safety responsibility simply rests with the individual road user.  Many organisations – the ‘system managers’ – have a primary responsibility to provide a safe operating environment, particularly when we know from experience that without action, these collisions will continue to occur.  Each has a role in building a culture where safety is an inherent part of all decision making affecting the system, its operation and its use.

The Queensland Road Safety Award was recognition that the parties understood that interface agreements are vital if we are serious about tackling the Level crossing safety issue.

Further, the involvement by VicRoads in conducting Feasibility and Proof of Concept studies was evidence of another jurisdiction acknowledging that the problem needs to be addressed by the whole land transport industry if it is to be successfully mitigated.

Q: Peter, the WLX Wireless Level Crossing Warning System developed by ITS Innovations is also low-cost system. What does this system add or improve on existing systems?  

Peter: ITS Innovations’ WLX system provides an active warning (flashing light warning with or without boom barriers) at a level crossing. It can be configured for single- or multi-track operation and also has an option for constant warning time. The system uses modern, fail-safe technology that has many advantages over previously technologies. The system uses very little power and requires no wiring. It therefore has fewer components that can be damaged or stolen.

The technology is smaller and lighter than previous technologies so it is much easier to install. This means even lower through-life costs for the system. By using modern communication technology we can not only monitor the state of the level crossing but we can remotely diagnose any issues, which allows for maintenance interventions to be planned more easily. Cheaper technology means that it is cost-effective to have redundant and diverse equipment installed to take over in the event of failures.

Q: Australia can experience some very severe weather conditions that have adverse effects on track conditions. How does the system stack up against our various environmental conditions?

Peter: Since the WLX system uses solid-state electronics and wireless communications we are able to enclose the system in completely sealed cases. For example, the train detection technology will work exactly the same even if it is completely submersed under water. It would even be able to detect passing submarines!

The system is built with a fail-safe communications protocol and users diverse and redundant systems elements to ensure that the system will continue to operate in a very wide range of conditions.

Q: What other future applications can you foresee for this technology?

Peter: Low-power, low-cost technology is being brought into many areas of railway safety systems including signaling and rail vehicle position detection. The WLX system has a very comprehensive interface that allows remote monitoring of all aspects of the system including battery charging rate, system temperature and all parameters that control the operation of the system. By combining these technologies into a single, modern information console we can expect to have much better information to help management of the railway, including identifying failures to improve operating reliability.

Q: 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?

Pat: In recent years, this has much improved.  It has certainly been our strategy to openly publish our research for consideration and critiquing.  There are now many forums and groups who collaborate quite extensively.  This has led to greater interoperability between technologies and can only be good for the industry.

Peter: Certainly there is much more research into level crossing safety now than 20 years ago. Research is being carried out around the world and there is a good degree of information sharing between academic researchers.

However there continues to be a serious problem in Australia that railways are extremely reluctant to share any information regarding level crossings for fear that disclosing information regarding the problem would make them vulnerable to legal action.

On the matter of new technology, the need for design protection means equipment manufacturers prefer to keep information to themselves and retain a competitive advantage when selling the technology.

Q: “Why re-invent the wheel?” was one of the themes that emerged at last year’s conference. Are any other countries looking at installing the technologies and products developed in Australia or are the specifications, standards and conditions country-specific?

Pat: Level crossing accidents do not respect borders.  The problems faced in Australia are mirrored almost everywhere that rail crossings exist.  As there is no impediment to the Pixies introduction, a great deal of interest is being shown by a number of jurisdictions to bring this technology forward to mitigate these events.

Peter: Existing relay-based level crossing technology is trusted and over the years has been engineered to be very reliable. However the components are expensive and energy-hungry. New technologies allow systems to be developed that are just as reliable but are much cheaper to install and operate which allows active warning devices to be provided where previously it would not have been possible. There has been considerable interest in ITS Innovations’ technology particularly from countries in Asia.

Q: 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”.  

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Given the cost and operational hurdles involved with removing level crossings, what’s the next best option?

Pat: Grade separation is not even a dream.  With over 23000 crossings in Australia at an average cost to separate in excess of $50 Million, it is not in the public’s best interests to consider. What we need to ask ourselves is ‘how can we create the most good for society by what we can afford?’

If we spend a percentage of the budget to upgrade a few problematic crossings, we effectively strip our capacity to upgrade others.

Technology is the enabler for level crossing safety.  We need to change the way we think and act.  The ‘’Grandfather Syndrome’’ has plagued the industry and has acted as a serious impediment to innovation.

P14M04 - Rail Safety BannerPeter: Aidan’s state is true of course, but can equally be extended to say that ‘the safest train is the one that doesn’t exist’ and ‘the safest road user is the one that doesn’t exist’. The truth, of course, is that we can expect level crossings to be a part of our railways for centuries to come.

There are still many things that can be done to reduce the accident rate. To follow Aidan’s line of thinking, it may be possible for railways to cooperate with road authorities to find ways to reduce road use at level crossings. More immediate solutions could include implementing technologies that make it harder for a road user to fail to notice the presence of the level crossing and to understand the need to stop for an approaching rail vehicle.

To hear more Peter Hughes, Director, ITS Innovations and Pat Latter, Executive Director, NFA Innovations will deliver updates as part of the ‘Industry Achievement’ session at Rail Safety 2014 in Sydney on the 26 March.

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