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Rail safetyAverting disaster on railroad crossings

Published 2 October 2017

The damsel in distress, tied up and left on the railroad tracks, is one of the oldest and most clichéd cinema tropes. This clichéd crime has connections to real, contemporary accidents that happen far more than they should. There are 200,000 crossings in the United States, and efforts to minimize the number of these crossings by creating overpasses, or elevating roadways are cost-prohibitive. Researchers found a better solution to reduce the number of accidents at railroad crossings: The Ghost Train Generator.

The damsel in distress, tied up and left on the railroad tracks, is one of the oldest and most clichéd cinema tropes.

Browsing YouTube late at night, Fermilab Technical Specialist Derek Plant found that this clichéd crime has connections to real, contemporary accidents that happen far more than they should. The videos all begin the same way: a large vehicle — a bus, semi, or other low-clearance vehicle — is stuck on a railroad crossing. In the end, the train crashes into the stuck vehicle, destroying it and sometimes even derailing the train. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, every year hundreds of vehicles meet this grisly fate by trains, which can take over a mile to stop.

“I was just surprised at the number of these that I found,” Plant said. “For every accident that’s videotaped, there are probably many more.”

FNAL says that Plant, inspired by a workplace safety class that preached a principle of minimizing the impact of accidents, set about looking for solutions to the problem of trains hitting stuck vehicles. Railroad tracks are elevated for proper drainage, and the humped profile of many crossings can cause a vehicle to bottom out.

“Theoretically, we could lower all the crossings so that they’re no longer a hump. But there are 200,000 crossings in the United States,” Plant said. “Railroads and local governments are trying hard to minimize the number of these crossings by creating overpasses, or elevating roadways. That’s cost-prohibitive, and it’s not going to happen soon.”

Other solutions, such as re-engineering the suspension on vehicles likely to get stuck, seemed equally improbable.

After studying how railroad signaling systems work, Plant came up with an idea: to fake the presence of a train. His invention was developed in his spare time using techniques and principles he learned over his almost two decades at Fermilab. It is currently in the patent application process and being prosecuted by Fermilab’s Office of Technology Transfer.

“If you cross over a railroad track and you look down the tracks, you’ll see red or yellow or green lights,” he said. “Trains have traffic signals too.”