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For a transcript of this video, please view it on YouTube.
Over the decade to June 2012, 139 people died and 596 were injured after being struck by trains in Victoria, according to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. This is about 55 per cent of all such accidents nationally in a state with about 25 per cent of the population. Victoria also saw 32 per cent of all collisions between trains and road vehicles.
The state's road traffic authority, VicRoads, puts the average cost of installing warning lights and boom gates at crossings at more than $650,000. The average cost of removing a level crossing by installing an over- or underpass, or realigning the road is between 50 and 100 times that. And there are more than 172 level crossings in Melbourne alone.
A far less expensive solution could well lie in smart technology using vehicle radios to warn drivers travelling towards a level crossing of an approaching train. Since the disastrous crash at Kerang in Victoria’s north between a road transport vehicle and a passenger train in June 2007, VicRoads had been exploring the development of such technology.
Technology company NFA Innovations devised a solution that relies on radio break-in technology – the system works through a small radio receiver fitted to road vehicles to broadcast an audible warning through the vehicle’s sound system, even if the radio is switched off or set to auxiliaries, such as Bluetooth, CD or MP3.
The company has developed a patented device they call 'Pixie' that plugs into the back of a vehicle radio system. When triggered, Pixie commandeers the speakers, overriding any other source, to broadcast a warning. It works even if the radio is switched off.
To activate the warning system, each railway locomotive is equipped with a GPS system and a radio transmitter. At a pre-set time before the train reaches a level crossing the transmitter sends a message to a transceiver at the crossing. This in turn triggers the radio break-in warning system in vehicles on roads leading to the crossing.
The device at the level crossing is designed to transmit on four different frequencies, each of which can be tuned to cover only a specific length of road in one particular direction.
The system can be fitted to any type of railway crossing in Australia and, says Pat Latter an automotive engineer and co-founder of NFA Innovations, the technology would cost less than $5000 per locomotive or crossing, and take about half a day to install in each case. Drivers would be looking at less than $50 and a few minutes to retrofit their vehicle's radio. The technology is flexible, he says, and could be extended to mobile phones and other portable devices. Once fitted in vehicles, it could be used for transmitting emergency services messages.
A Queensland trial and global interest
Any viable system of railway crossing warning in Australia will need to be accepted nationally, so that trucks and cars from all states are equipped to receive information from any railway crossing across the country.
The Queensland Government is currently contracting with NFA Innovations to trial the system with a view to rolling it out across the network.
'But this is a worldwide problem', Pat Latter says.
The company has received inquiries from Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India, the United States and France.
The United Kingdom is interested in the potential of the system for pedestrian crossings, with pedestrian and vehicle accidents an increasing problem.
This project was funded under the Victorian Government's Market Validation Program (MVP). The new Driving Business Innovation program builds on the MVP.
Thanks to assistance provided as part of this program, life-saving technology by NFA Innovations is being trialled in Queensland with a view to a national rollout - and possible uptake globally.