Networks of tiny wireless sensors could provide a safer and cheaper method for controlling railway crossings, according to research from the University of Huddersfield.
The Institute of Railway Research (IRR) won funding from the Department for Transport (DfT) to investigate new methods of crossing control. The successful bid was drawn up by research fellow Dr Farouk Balouchi, an electronics engineer with expertise in “energy harvesting” – drawing electrical power 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 a message to lower or raise the gates.
Peter Hughes, a specialist in level crossing safety who has supported the team, said: “The UK alone has 6,599 gazetted level crossings and the technology would have global potential.”
In some locations, a conventional detection system could cost up to £500,000, with high running costs. But a wireless sensor network in the same situation could be installed for less than £20,000.
Dr Coen Vam Gulijkthe, the IRR’s professor in railway safety, said that their research has shown that using many cheap sensors can still guarantee the same level of fail safety as expensive detection systems.
The wireless sensor network would also be “self-healing”, said Balouchi.
“If one sensor fails, the others talk to one another and creates another network, creating another route for the information to travel,” he explained.
He added that 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 minimised.
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.
While the use of such wireless sensors is novel for the rail industry, the technology has been tried and tested in the oil and gas industry and some safety-critical applications such as medical devices, said Balouchi.
In carrying out the DfT-funded research project, the IRR carried out extensive testing and modelling at its rail research labs at the University of Huddersfield.
Following a successful demonstration of the feasibility of using wireless sensors to control automatic level crossings, Balouchi and his team are set to hold talks with industrial partners to introduce the technology to the commercial market.