How Technology is Increasing Safety in the Right of Way

While Federal Railroad Administration data shows recent years have been the safest on record for the rail sector, data indicates two primary areas of safety concern:

  • Incidents involving equipment and track (responsible for 42% of train accidents); and
  • Human error (responsible for 39% of accidents).

Those two areas are of particular concern in the Right of Way, where workers are regularly exposed to hazards from moving trains and equipment. But railroads are making use of new technological approaches that lessen that concern. In moving work zones, fixed work zones and in work that uses heavy equipment, technological approaches are making it safer for railway workers in the right of way.

What is railroad right of way?

You may be familiar with the term “right-of-way” as the right for one party to access, use or crossover another party’s land. In railroad terminology, however, “right-of-way” refers to the strip of land where railroad companies construct their roadbed; the term references the land, not the right to pass over it. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) defines right of way as “The area at track level or above track level at a distance from the centerline of the track.”

Safety in moving work zones

In moving work zones, right of way workers are performing work such as clearing track or conducting inspections in a number of areas. Safety in moving work zones is complicated by the varying safety guidelines that change from zone to zone, and by the danger that workers may move to an area where the landscape or structures prevent them from being able to see trains in time to clear an area safely. The danger in moving work zones increases when two or more crews are working in an area simultaneously.

Technological approaches to moving work zone safety
To address safety in work zones, railroads have begun relying on train-based and wayside-based technologies that monitor personnel and their movements in the right of way. When a train is approaching right of way workers, train-based technology systems generally use an alarm to warn both the workers and the train of the danger. Warnings can be as basic as an audible beeping or visual flashing alarm, or can be more technologically sophisticated, warning the train operator of exactly how far the train is from workers, and allowing workers and train operators to communicate directly.

Permanent wayside equipment that monitors movement of workers in the right of way also detects approaching trains, warning workers and train operators. This equipment can also communicate with a control center. And some technologies keep workers safe by automating processes and keeping workers out of the right of way entirely. Ultrasound devices that examine the integrity of the rail and ground-penetrating radar that identifies abnormalities and water intrusion are significantly decreasing the time right of way workers spend in the right of way on inspection and maintenance.

Safety in fixed work zones

In the right of way, fixed work zones have a defined and limited area. Because their area is defined, threats and dangers specific to the zone can be more thoroughly analyzed, and safety guidelines can be specific to that particular defined area. Even so, these areas pose significant safety challenges, such as miscommunication about the area’s boundaries, or human error, such as a worker who is flagging moving equipment and who fails to warn track workers of danger.

Technological approaches to fixed work zone safety
One technological approach to making fixed work zones safer is to place detectors ahead of a work zone, temporarily or permanently. These detectors give audible beeps and visible flashing to warn of approaching trains or equipment, giving workers time to get to a safe area. Some detectors can be placed in the area to broadcast the warning, and others are provided via personal devices worn on the worker’s vest or arm.

And the communication can often go both ways – not only are workers in the right of way warmed, but train operators can also be notified via device that workers ahead are in danger.

Safety around heavy equipment

Heavy equipment is almost always present when workers occupy the right of way. The equipment itself is dangerous to workers and to other equipment and structures. There’s also greater danger of human error, as the focus of equipment operators is generally on the equipment itself and the work being done, rather than approaching dangers. Working with heavy equipment puts railway workers in danger from the equipment itself and from being so absorbed in the work that they fail to notice the approach of trains.

Technological approaches to heavy equipment safety
Technological devices can monitor the distance between pieces of equipment, between equipment and workers, and between the equipment and the edge of the defined work zone. Warnings can be singular, issued to the equipment operator or the worker – or can be multiple, with warnings given to workers, train and equipment operators, and/or a control center. The audio and visual warnings are particularly useful in getting the attention of equipment operators otherwise absorbed in the intricacies of their work.

Positive Train Control (PTC) devices can help offset human error by stopping or slowing a train based on signals that indicate danger. The largest railroads are expected to have PTC on all Class 1 routes by the end of 2020.

Technology supports existing safety approaches

State and federal agencies are urging railroads to leverage technology to decrease near miss incidents and accidents in the right of way – but APTA cautions that technology doesn’t replace standard rules and procedures. Instead, technology generally functions to add a layer of safety by providing a secondary warning. Railroads recognize the advantage technological advances are making in keeping workers safe. As a result, investment in technological systems represents a growing portion of the funds used to expand railroads’ infrastructure and equipment.