An unmanned survey and inspection device to improve rail safety

Project Status: 

Defects and obstacles on and around train tracks cause delays and deadly accidents and cost the railway industry millions every year. The CSIR has developed a rail inspection device that travels ahead of locomotives and warns train drivers of dangers ahead, allowing them sufficient time to stop the train.

The challenge: Deadly and costly accidents difficult to avoid
According to the Rail Safety Regulator’s State of Safety Report 2013/14, 400 people died and 800 were injured per year as a result of collisions, derailments, level crossing incidents and people struck by trains on South Africa’s railway tracks between 2008 and 2014. The financial impact on Transnet Freight Rail is approximately R434 million per year. The average stopping distance of a freight train can be as much as 1 – 2 km and the driver can only see a few hundred metres ahead of the locomotive. In many cases, it is almost impossible to avoid these accidents.

Research and development: A rail inspection device that warns
CSIR engineers developed a survey and inspection device that travels ahead of the locomotive alerting the driver of obstacles and potential hazards at level crossings. The device is also designed to inspect and report on the condition of the rail infrastructure.

Fitted with sensors that detect obstacles
The device is fitted with sensors such as cameras and laser scanners and travels 1 – 2 km ahead of the locomotive surveying the track for obstacles such as animals, vehicles or missing tracks. Once an obstacle is detected, the unit notifies the train driver via live video feedback. This information can also be sent wirelessly to a server where it can be accessed afterwards.

Acting as a pointsman
At level crossings, the device acts as a pointsman, warning motor vehicle drivers of the approaching train, thereby preventing them from crossing the track. The device waits in the middle of the railroad crossing until the train is in sight of the motor vehicle driver and then speeds off. Visual recording systems on board record all activity outside the device while its highly visible warning lights and voice communication systems allow communication to the vehicle drivers.

Inspecting infrastructure
In inspection mode, the device continuously monitors the condition of the track, looking for defects while measuring the track gauge (the distance between the tracks). This includes the ballasts and surrounding civil works. The device also uses a multispectral camera to monitor the condition of the electrical overheads. When a defect is found, the nature of the defect and its GPS location is stored and digitally communicated to a command centre.

Outcome: A prototype launched
The first prototype version was unveiled at Africa Rail 2016, the continent’s leading infrastructure and transport show. Testing of the system commenced in April 2016 and it is continuously being upgraded.

Contact Person

Peter Bosscha