Affordability and safety risk at level crossings

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Oct/Nov 2014

Martin Gallagher, Futronics Group Ltd managing director and chair of the United Nations Expert Group on Level Crossing Safety, discusses the double standards in level crossing improvements.

The growth in rail, both passenger and freight, provides new opportunities and old challenges for suppliers and innovators.

This is an exciting time for small technology companies like Futronics with experience and expertise in rail and traffic management. However, it also requires a degree of reticence and a large dose of reality before committing to any development work on the back of an enthusiastic request from a customer.

We have just received product approval for a low-cost Train Approach Warning System (TAWS), a GPS-based train location and positioning information system currently being used by signallers to support decision making. It can also be used to give train position information direct to users of level crossings.

This solves some of the railway’s greatest legacy issues: the use of telephones for permission to use user-worked crossings (UWCs) in long signal sections, and useful information direct to users of passive crossings to enable better and safer decision making.

Having been operational for over two years without incident and with reliability at 99%, it is still viewed with slight scepticism in purist quarters.

Constantly referred to as new technology, it is compared to all the SIL 3 & 4 systems that are 99.9% reliable – which nobody can create a business case for at most rural crossings.

Although it is available at a fraction of the whole life cost of these systems and is light-years ahead of the current method of operation – which imports more risk than it controls – it remains to be seen whether an affordable, incremental improvement is preferred to a policy decision that only allows for the unaffordable solution.

This really is the crux of the matter. Everyone would like 99.9%, but it isn't currently affordable. The affordable option is only 99%.

So what do you do; especially given the current process is further down the SIL 0 list than anything?

If you sit on your hands and wait for the next derailment because a commercial HGV driver didn't want to wait 15 minutes on a single track railway, it means safety for passengers, train crew and level crossing users doesn't improve or gets worse.

It also leads to huge unplanned cost and diversion away from strategic objectives.

The Office of Rail Regulation has been extremely forward-thinking in its support for affordable incremental improvements, as have RAIB and the RSSB.

This pragmatic view is common sense; and common sense and safety fit quite nicely together.

Double standards

The situation is all the more ludicrous when you consider the safety, integrity and technology being used every day at over 1,500 passive crossings to mitigate poor sighting safety issues.

Whistle boards have so many points of known failure that even the most unscrupulous salesman couldn't walk in with a straight face with one of those in the attaché case. Yet the railway is littered with numerous non-compliances and a 'solution' that goes from being ineffective during the day to effectively turned off between 11pm-7am.

Why the double standard? This has to be a reasonable question from the supply chain, who are being asked to design and produce safety improvements for under £25,000, then have them tested and go through two to three years of product approvals and managing to achieve 99% reliability – to then be confronted by contorted faces and questions about safety levels at level crossings.

Our intention is to design affordable solutions to improve safety. We have done this with the Gatekeeper Red Light Enforcement System for public road level crossings.

This Home Office Type Approved system requires no corroboration from witnesses and is completely automated, from offence detection to prosecution. It will change driver behaviour and improve safety. The datasets the system produces will also improve risk management capability and lead to far better research into this complex human factors-based subject.

Technology is fundamental to improving safety on the railway but it requires greater enablers and some more agile thinking on the customer side.

The length of time to reach product approval means the technology is never new. It also means that someone has funded project teams and development for two years, only for many of these products never to sell enough units to pay back the development costs.

The future is exciting for rail safety technology but the innovation needs to start at both ends of this telescope.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


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