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Prime Mover Magazine

Increasing road safety at rail crossings

A new ‘visual advance warning’ beacon system developed in Sydney is now being installed on roads in advance of railway crossings to improve safety by ensuring drivers are more effectively alerted that a railway crossing is active. It does this by modifying driver behaviour through creating a heightened state of alertness as drivers approach. The system is called SafeZone and it was recently rolled out at several sites across Tasmania.

Early last year, the Federal Government allocated more than $100 million to upgrade 200 high risk railway crossings. The proposal was for boom gates at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars per crossing. More than a year on, only about 5% of these crossings have been upgraded, with delays due to the long lead times required to design and manufacture the imported hardware and control systems.

By comparison, 13 rail crossings in regional Tasmania were equipped with the Australian SafeZone road-side and in-road alert beacons in a matter of weeks during June and July. While the speed of installation of these rail crossing warning systems was unprecedented, what’s even more notable is the cost savings of between 50% and 80% compared to traditional level crossing warning systems such as boom gates.

The roads treated in Tasmania are frequented by high speed commuter and freight vehicles. Many of the crossings on these roads are in hilly, winding terrain where they’re not easily seen on approach. These conditions have led to a number of incidents but the high cost of boom gates was prohibitive and wasn’t considered to necessarily be the most effective solution.

After only a few weeks of planning and construction of site specific hardware, each site in Tasmania received a SafeZone upgrade within 2-3 days. Completion of this first stage of the project coincided with the start of National Rail Safety Week on 24 August, when the Tasmanian Minister for Infrastructure, Laura Giddings MP, officially opened an upgraded crossing at Tea Tree, north of Hobart. The Minister was joined by the CEO of TasRail and others to witness the system’s effectiveness at getting drivers on a 100km/h road section to slow down to 50km/h or less well in advance of reaching the rail crossing; more than enough time to stop.

This follows recent deployments by Rio Tinto (WA rail crossing) and Woolworths Limited (NSW food distribution centre) where improved driver awareness was required to assist in avoiding accidents at crossings and in distribution centres, where insufficient warning times was a large part of the problem.

The SafeZone concept overcomes the behavioural tendency for drivers to ignore static signs or flashing lights in the periphery of their field of vision. It does this by placing multiple bright, flashing warning beacons in the driver’s line of sight, down the centre of the road and/or down the lane markers, making the beacons almost impossible to miss. This runway effect continues right up to the danger point.

Tests conducted by the Roads and Traffic Authority NSW (RTA) in 2007 indicated that this system is up to 70 percent (or more) more effective than road signs, and only slightly less effective than speed cameras at getting drivers to slow down before entering a high risk zone. This is reiterated in other studies overseas.

What makes this system unique is that the beacons are battery powered, radio controlled and very compact. It’s the total absence of external cabling that makes them cheaper and easier to install than other systems and that makes the whole system so flexible and adaptable for applications from pedestrian crossings, to tram stops, to distribution centres.

The main element of the SafeZone system is a flashing warning beacon called an IRAD (In-Road/Rail Alert Device). Each IRAD features 14 ultra bright flashing LEDs. IRADS are placed every 4-10 metres down the road, dependant on the site and application. Rows of IRADs are installed far enough in advance of the danger point so that drivers are given sufficient ‘advance warning’ and can slow down or stop.

The start of each ‘safe zone’ is marked by a road-side Advance Alert Warning Sign (AAWS) that notifies drivers of the nature of the danger (in this case an active rail crossing). This combination of road-side and in-road warnings is what’s proving so effective.

The IRADs protrude only 20mm above the road’s surface and have a long life battery pack and radio receiver system that can remain active for up to five years before replacement is needed. If one light fails, it will not affect the other lights and can be quickly and easily replaced. The radio signal that activates the IRADs is controlled via an Alert Device Controller which is placed at the rail line and connected to the wigwag activation system. Alternately it can be activated by a supplementary train detection system, such as radar. The in-road and roadside lights can even have a fail-to-safe mode if they lose contact with the rail crossing activation system, something that is also unique.

SafeZone is a division of Inventis Technology which has over 20 years of experience in creating advanced control and warning systems.

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