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New collaborative project is looking at improving safety for pedestrians at railway crossings

Author: UNB Newsroom

Posted on Jan 24, 2023

Category: UNB Fredericton

Dr. Trevor Hanson

Dr. Trevor Hanson, a professor of civil engineering at the University of New Brunswick, is working with researchers at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) on a Transport Canada project that could help save lives by making grade crossings safer for pedestrians and people who use assistive devices.

People who live in communities intersected by railways often need to travel across the tracks where roads and rails intersect, called grade crossings. Flangeway gaps are the empty spaces between the rails and the road surface at these crossings. They are necessary for allowing a train’s wheels, which have a flange on their outside edge, to roll through the crossing. However, the flangeway gap can be a major issue for persons using assistive devices, such as wheelchairs. In some cases, wheelchair caster wheels can fall into the gap, and pedestrians can become trapped on the crossing.

“Going back to 1990, every few years or so, we see another tragic case where someone using their assistive device has become immobilized on the track and is unable to get out of the way before a train arrives. Sadly, there have been six recorded fatalities in Canada where this has happened, with the flangeway gap playing a major role in five of those cases,” said Dr. Hanson. “If we can find a way to reduce or fill this gap, we can make it safer for pedestrians using assistive devices to cross at these locations.”

The overall project is funded through Transport Canada’s Rail Safety Improvement Program (RSIP), which focuses on rail safety and climate change resiliency; it particularly emphasizes the vital importance of increasing safety at grade crossings.

“Investing in projects that focus on improving rail safety in our communities is a top priority for our government,” said the Minister of Transport, the Honourable Omar Alghabra. “I am pleased to see the funding from the Rail Safety Improvement Program go towards a project that will reduce rail safety risks and help keep Canadians safe.”

Dr. Hanson previously led this project's first phase, which consisted of a background study to identify potential solutions and a testing plan that might be deployed in Canada.

“We know that there are solutions that exist elsewhere. The challenge is whether they will work in the Canadian operating environment, which includes extreme winter weather and heavy freight rail,” said Dr. Hanson. “We need to ensure that we have looked at this issue from as many angles as possible so that the safety implications for users and railways are well understood before moving to a field test.”

The UNB research team is responsible for the overall project, including chairing a steering committee that will help guide and inform the development and execution of the research study. Testing will be undertaken by a team of rail technology experts from the NRC’s Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre and its Resilient Ground Transportation (RGT) R&D program to assess the potential gap filler solutions. The NRC’s RGT program aims to contribute to a more efficient, safe and connected Canadian transportation system. This project will also provide an advanced learning opportunity for a UNB student whose master’s work will be related to the project.

“The NRC is proud to bring its expertise in railway engineering to address key safety concerns that will help make Canada's transportation system more resilient,” said Iain Stewart, President, National Research Council of Canada. “This project demonstrates how collaboration between government and academia is essential to foster innovation and technological development for the benefit of Canadians.”

Research work is underway, and the project is anticipated to continue into 2024.