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Tracking Track Workers for Safety

Bombardier Transportation is developing an RFID system that will alert rail inspectors to oncoming subway trains and conductors to workers on the tracks.
By Mark Roberti
Aug 01, 2010—In 2007, several subway operations fatalities occurred in the United States, prompting the U.S. Department of Transportation to push the industry to reduce hazards associated with maintenance and inspection work. Keith Sheardown, Bombardier's general manager of technology solutions for transportation, thought he could help. He had recently attended an RFID Journal event in Toronto, where he'd learned how British Petroleum had created a worker safety system, based on ultra-wideband (UWB) technology, to locate workers in real time. He thought the system could greatly reduce track worker fatalities.

Sheardown got approval to invest $100,000 to develop a UWB track safety system, but then he got cold feet. Would workers embrace the system or fear it would turn into Big Brother? Would the system be reliable? And would transit providers invest in it?

TrackSafe, a passive RFID system, would create a safety zone around workers as they walk along subway tracks.
He decided to step back and examine how inspectors work and why accidents occur. Sheardown interviewed track inspectors and filmed how they do their job. He also bought a model train set and reenacted major incidents and fatalities that occurred in the United States over the past 10 years. Armed with this information, he worked with the McMaster University RFID Application Lab to develop a passive RFID system that creates a safety zone around workers as they walk along subway tracks.

"When we learned how track inspectors work, we realized that UWB wouldn't be a good fit. What we needed to do was let a conductor know when workers were on the tracks ahead, and let workers know when a train was coming. As a result, we came up with a solution that will be more reliable, more effective and less expensive than the one I originally envisioned."
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