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Advanced solutions to obstacle detection

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When asked what the safest type of level crossing is, invariably the answer from any educated rail engineer will be “a closed one”. Of course, common sense tells us that this will always be true and rail organisations all over the world will always plan to remove their highly dangerous road/rail interfaces wherever possible. For example, VicTrack in Melbourne, Australia, is currently planning to spend millions of Australian Dollars in grade separating 50 of its 180 city metro crossings.

Where crossings cannot be removed, due to cost or physical impracticalities, railroad companies strive to implement the safest processes to manage the passage of trains while protecting the public users of the crossing. Until recently, the safest type of active level crossing was those monitored by signallers who physically watched the crossing, manually closing barriers and then confirming that the crossing was clear for trains to pass. These crossings are known as MCB (manually controlled barrier) and, where CCTV cameras are employed, MCB-CCTV, in which case the signaller can monitor several crossings from a central control centre, reducing the manpower required.

More recently, automatic obstacle detection solutions have been employed, to remove the human reliance completely. Network Rail has designated these crossings as MCB-OD.

With OD solutions being designed to ever-higher safety integrity levels (SIL), these are now recognised as the safest type of active crossing and are being promoted across the world as a cost-effective alternative to crossing closure or grade separation.

OD in UK

After having already commissioned over 100 level crossing obstacle detection systems in the UK, using a combination of radar and LiDAR, Network Rail recently initiated a tender process in which suppliers were invited to propose new obstacle detection solutions to fulfil its remaining upgrade programme. One of the many responders was IDS Ingegneria Dei Sistemi SpA, a high-tech integrated engineering solutions and services company based in Pisa, Italy.

Marina Marra, head of the company’s railways and safety division, explained: “We had successfully delivered 200 of our SIL4 certified Radar OD solutions to the Italian rail operator, RFI, so we believed we had the right experience and a good overall proposal to offer to Network Rail. The technical specification differed somewhat, so we initiated a suite of tests internally to give us the confidence we could meet the Network Rail requirements, such as detecting small children lying down on the ground. Following this, we completed our tender response and waited for news.”

Network Rail announced that IDS was the preferred bidder in March and, following the statutory standstill period and successful quality and DFR (design for reliability) audit undertaken at the Pisa headquarters, IDS and Network Rail signed a five-year framework contract on 20 July.

“We are so happy to have successfully completed this process with Network Rail after such a challenging and competitive tender,” said Massimo Garbini, chief executive officer of IDS. “Our engineers have done an exceptional job and we are all looking forward to working with our newest customer in the UK.”

Advanced solution

The IDS Obstacle Detection solution consists of a single stand-alone radar product that is installed on a pole in one corner of the level crossing. Utilising 58 separate transmitters and receivers, the system can detect objects as small as 150mm, human beings and road vehicles up to 35 metres from the scanner.

Dave Farman, level crossing safety consultant, said: “The solution which has been developed by IDS is very advanced, utilising solid state radar technology and designed to the highest standards. It requires no preventative maintenance once installed, no cleaning, calibration, etc. We are aware that Network Rail looked closely at the WLC (whole life cost) of the product, which includes any maintenance regimes required over its lifetime, and we are convinced this helped considerably in winning the tender.

“The product has a 15-year MTBF (mean time between failure) and auto-diagnostic functionality, so you can effectively install it and leave it alone for 15 years before returning when it tells you it is about to fail.”

Dave spent more than five years developing and implementing the Lidar Complementary Obstacle Detection solution currently in use on UK rail crossings, so he is well educated in the requirements and processes undertaken at Network Rail.

“We are looking forward to delivering the first test system to York, which will be used to start the Network Rail Product Approval process,” he added.

Low whole-life cost

The development of low-cost obstacle detection systems, such as the IDS Radar, means that a truly safe alternative to grade separation is now a reality. Where customers use ALARP (as low as reasonably practicable) as their principle for safety mitigation, a very low whole-life cost solution, which brings with it extremely high levels of safety, creates a clear cost-effective opportunity for railroads to reduce risk at level crossings.

“With the Network Rail contract now agreed, we can move forward with our international plan to deliver safer level crossings across the globe,” explained Dave. “We have visited railroads and rail safety organisations across Australia, New Zealand and the USA, where moves to implement digital railway signalling systems such as ATMS and PTC are well underway. This enables the integration of our product by simply adding another input to the digital interlocking process, creating a safe level crossing without the need for expensive legacy signalling upgrades.

“Level crossing safety is a truly global problem as we hear every year at the ILCAD (International Level Crossing Awareness Day), this year hosted by Croatia Rail in Zagreb and supported by UIC (International Union of Railways). IDS sponsored this year’s event and announced the Network Rail contract award at the conference. With IDS’ global sales and support structure we hope to deliver increased safety at Level Crossings across the globe.”

Read more: Digital delusion: A lesson from not-so-long ago


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