In 2019, the U.S. alone saw 907 rail-related deaths. In the same year, fatalities at highway-rail crossings increased 14%. These are tragic stats that need to change. An international effort to reduce traffic accidents, called “Vision Zero,” has been underway for several years to make our streets safer, and now rail needs its own Vision Zero.
Advances in rail technology have made the experience both more convenient and more efficient, which will in turn attract greater numbers of users. Globally, passenger and freight traffic are expected to double by 2050. This increase in traffic will only exacerbate the need for safer rail operations. While new processes and procedures will be vital to the effort, new technologies are emerging that impact trains, tracks, and the entire operational environment, serving as the linchpin of success.
For the trains, Positive Train Control (PTC) acts as an automatic safeguard to stop or slow down trains that are moving too fast. It automatically shares train data, such as position, speed, and the actions of the locomotive engineers, to central dispatching offices in real-time. If the system detects abnormalities like a train traveling too fast or a conflict between trains, PTC will automatically intervene, reducing a train’s speed, or stopping it altogether, while alerting the engineers and keeping passengers safe.
For the track and infrastructure, fixed and mobile sensors enable better monitoring and the automated detection of potential safety impacts. These technologies include 3D laser scanning of rail networks, the use of drones, and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically detect features and anomalies. Train-mounted LiDAR can scan tracks drastically faster than engineers’ ability to do so manually, while stationary LiDAR on tracks can quickly detect not just small objects that could impact rail performance, but almost imperceptible shifts in the landscape that could affect track integrity in the future.
For example, in the UK, Network Rail, the owner and operator of Great Britain’s railway infrastructure, and Innovate UK, the country’s innovation agency, are working to improve the speed and precision of railway infrastructure mapping through AI. Network Rail collects detailed information about its track and the surrounding features, such as bridges and tunnels. The data is then analyzed to assess clearances between trains and the infrastructure around them, which is key to safety. The current, manual process takes analysts months or even years due to the size of the data and the labor-intensive tasks involved. The project will enable Network Rail to automatically identify and measure railway structures from LiDAR data, saving valuable time and resources.
Ensuring the large amounts of data collected through monitoring and inspection technologies and operations as part of the rail operators’ total information environment is also critical to enhancing safety measures, as well as boosting efficiency and keeping operations running smoothly. Operators can leverage data on a broader scale by combining all asset and spatial data into an integrated transport network information system that provides a common operational picture and ensures access to accurate and up-to-date information across an organization, empowering various departments. By leveraging 3D models of infrastructure combined with operational data, a rail operator can create an advanced digital twin of the entire transportation system, including everything from stops, tracks, and switches to ticket machines, benches, and garbage cans. Beyond the immediate issues discovered through automated monitoring and analysis of tracks, such a system could, for example, pinpoint areas that have congestion issues that impact safety and require attention.
Estonian Railways, a state-owned company responsible for Estonia’s railway administration, has undertaken such a project — moving from fragmented systems to automating and digitizing the railway’s entire infrastructure maintenance, construction, and traffic management processes. Through a web-based system that integrates with multiple information systems and users, including other companies and external systems, Estonian Railways is centralizing asset and spatial data to avoid data duplication and ensure users have access to the most up-to-date information.
Each of the examples mentioned underscores the explosion of data now available to rail operators. To fully harness the data and improve safety, manual analysis is no longer an option as the time and labor needed to support such an effort would be unattainable. Automation based on AI is the future of rail operations and will be the foundation for success in creating safer railways.
As rail operators prepare for the expected increase in traffic, it is imperative that new initiatives are set in motion to ensure the safety of passengers and others. The potential for doubled rail traffic by 2050 is an exciting proposition for the industry, but the reduction in rail-related fatalities is a necessity. By embracing safety-enabling technologies and prioritizing them as part of network growth, rail operators can work toward their own Vision Zero for the railways.