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Automated Railway Inspection System Can Help Prevent Train Accidents

Research Gets $1M From U.S. Department of Transportation

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In a 2008 report, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that about 25 percent of the country’s rail and bus assets are operating close to, or beyond, their useful life.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

On July 11, 2006, a Chicago Transit Authority subway train derailed between two of the city’s downtown stations. Following the derailment, the train came to a stop and an electrical arc developed between the last car and the 600-volt third rail, generating a lot of acrid smoke. Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt or killed in the accident, but as a precaution, the train’s 1,000 passengers were evacuated. Total property damage was estimated at more than $1 million.

According to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the accident was probably caused by the “Chicago Transit Authority’s ineffective management and oversight of its track inspection and maintenance program and its system safety program, which resulted in unsafe track conditions.”

A team of researchers from UMass Lowell, Duke University, the University of Vermont, the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and Penn State Altoona has recently received a two-year award of $1 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) to develop a high-tech automated system for inspecting and monitoring the health of the country’s rail transit infrastructure. Keeping better tabs of railroad tracks, bridges and tunnels could help prevent passenger trains like the one in Chicago from derailing.

“Our system will use ground-penetrating radar, laser, geographic information system and GPS to automatically check and collect surface and subsurface data on the track’s steel rails, concrete ties, fastening systems and ballast,” says Yuanchang Xie, an assistant professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and the principal investigator (PI) for the entire project.

Xie says special algorithms and software tools will analyze and interpret the data and assist in detecting and locating rail defects and safety hazards, such as broken ties, missing bolts, fouled ballast and wide rail gauge. In addition, a WebGIS-based decision support system will be developed to help visualize the inspection results.

“This will make it very easy for railroad track owners and operators to identify where the problems are and how severe they are,” he says.

A Growing Problem

In a 2008 report, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that approximately 25 percent of the nation’s rail and bus assets are in marginal or poor condition. Confounding the issue is the fact that rail transit agencies rely heavily on visual observations to inspect the tracks.

“This manual method is time-consuming, costly and unsafe and cannot effectively identify safety hazards below the surface,” says Xie. “Given our aging rail infrastructure, our proposed system is expected to substantially benefit the rail transit industry by improving the track inspection’s efficiency and accuracy, as well as the safety of both the rail transit systems and track workers.”

The team is currently working with the consulting firms CodeRed Business Solutions and Pavemetrics Systems to develop the system, which will be tested in collaboration with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and Metro St. Louis.

In addition to Xie, other members of the UMass Lowell team include civil engineering Asst. Prof. Tzu-Yang Yu, who is the co-PI, and graduate students Jessica Wang, Tugba Arsava and Chao Zhang.

UMass Lowell’s share of the RITA funding is nearly $410,000; the rest of the award money goes to the other universities and firms. This award is part of RITA’s Commercial Remote Sensing & Spatial Information technologies program for transportation infrastructure development and construction.

For more information, go to project’s website.