UK’s University of Huddersfield proposes cheaper alternative for railway crossing safety


When roads cross railway lines, safety is of paramount importance for both road and rail users. Current train detection devices that control the operation of barriers at railway crossings are costly and disruptive to install, but current research in the UK may have come up with a cheaper solution.

The findings of a UK government-funded project, carried out by rail experts at the University of Huddersfield’s Institute of Railway Research (IRR), show that networks of tiny wireless sensors could not only improve safety at railway crossings, but would also be much less costly to install and maintain, drawing their electrical power from track vibration.

The IRR won funding from the Department for Transport (DfT) to investigate new methods of crossing control, with the project led by Dr Farouk Balouchi (right), an electronics engineer with special expertise in ‘energy harvesting’, meaning that electrical power is drawn from sources that could include track vibrations caused by an approaching train. This would provide a ‘free’ power source for relatively inexpensive sensors that could be attached to tracks in the vicinity of a crossing. They would then form a wireless network to send messages to lower or raise the gates.

Now that they have demonstrated the feasibility of using wireless sensors to control automatic level crossings, researchers at the university’s IRR are to hold talks with industrial partners that can help bring the project to fruition. Peter Hughes, a specialist in level crossing safety who has supported the team, stated, “The UK alone has 6,599 gazetted (registered) level crossings and the technology would have global potential.”

Current train detection devices are costly to make and install. “These detectors are expensive, because they are made to be failsafe,” said the IRR’s professor in railway safety, Dr Coen Van Gulijk (left).

“But we have shown that we can use many cheap sensors and still guarantee fail safety. Savings could be massive. In some locations, a conventional detection system could cost up to £500,000 (US$622,200), with high running costs. But a wireless sensor network in the same situation could be installed for less than £20,000 (US$26,500).”

Balouchi noted, “It would be self-powered by vibration, and the network would also be ‘self-healing’. If one sensor fails, the others talk to one another and create another network, creating another route for the information to travel. Wireless sensors could be fitted quickly, with no requirements for conduits, or wiring that was vulnerable to theft, or problems such as being gnawed by rodents. Disruption to rail services caused by installation and maintenance would therefore be minimized. Another boon would be that the wireless sensors would not only detect trains but, because they respond to vibrations, they could also be used to monitor the condition of the track and the track bed. The technology has been tried and tested in the oil and gas industry and some safety-critical applications, such as medical devices.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).