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Wednesday, Feb 20, 2002

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Convergence goes on track

Vipin V. Nair

Script writers for train-accident thrillers will soon lose their raison d'etre. A new microprocessor-based system will help avert accidents.

EVERYTIME an engine driver embarks upon a new journey, he knows very well deep within himself that he needs a fair amount of providence to reach the destination, no matter how adroit he is.

In spite of considerable advancements in railway safety systems, why does the driver still get such a chilling feeling before every journey? It's because from the moment a train leaves the station, he relies heavily on the signals on his way and on the trust that no train is coming on the same track and there is no obstacle in his path.

``In block sections (between two stations), the driver has to drive without any guidance and simply on the basis of trust. While it takes 1.5 km to 1.7 km to bring a train to a complete halt, the driver has no visibility beyond a few metres,'' says B. Rajaram, Managing Director of Konkan Railway Corporation.

Such insecure circumstances under which our trains run — there were 473 train accidents in the country during 2000-01 — made Rajaram think of developing a device that would make train much more safe. The result is the development of a microprocessor-based system called ``Anti-Collision Device'' (ACD).

Once it was conceived, Rajaram and his team of engineers took barely 90 days to develop the first prototype of ACD, which itself is a sort of record. ``The first prototype was proven in December 1999 and then the commercial prototype was jointly tested with the Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO). Now we have filed for the global patent for ACD,'' says Rajaram.

Driver's smart friend

To use Rajaram's words, ACD is an intelligent friend to the engine driver, which can act on its own without any human intervention. It comprises a Command and Control Unit (CCU), a GPS Receiver, Radio Transmitter and Crew Interface. The CCU, which is the heart of the ACD, is a microprocessor-based module which processes the data and generates commands. The GPS Receiver picks up signals from GPS satellites and submits the same to the CCU to extract parameters related to the movement of the locomotive such as latitude, longitude, speed, angle, date and time.

Let's look at how the ACD prevents the head-on collision of two speeding trains, which accidentally happen to be on the same track. An ACD mounted on a train constantly looks out for signals from another ACD in a 3-km range. The moment both the trains are within the required breaking distance, the ACDs, after analysing the data from the GPS, deduce that they are on the same track and are heading for a collision. Then the ACDs automatically apply the brakes, bringing both the trains to a halt without the intervention of the driver.

The ACD can be used not only for avoiding head-on collisions but also to detect if a train has accidentally stopped on the same track as another, preventing a following train telescoping into its rear. Also, if two trains are moving on the same track but the separation distance is less than 2 km, the ACD will automatically regulate the following train's speed. It can also detect when the bogies of a train from an adjacent track derail on to a train's path. Konkan Railways has tested out 11 accident scenarios with the ACD.

The ACD can be mounted not only on trains but also be installed at railway stations, level crossing gates (both manned and unmanned), and on guard vans. If a station is equipped with an ACD, the driver will receive the ``station approach'' warning as the train approaches the station. Also, the ACD can sense whether a level crossing gate is open or damaged and warn the driver, besides regulating the train's speed.

Another major application of the ACD is that it will give the station master the power to control the train remotely. ``By pressing the `SOS' button in the ACD installed at a station, the station master can stop all trains within 3 km,'' Rajaram says. This would prevent somebody hijacking a train and running amuck as happened some time ago in North India. Guards and gatemen can also send SOS signals to avoid any possible mishaps if they come across any problems on the tracks/crossings.

However, a drawback of the ACD is that unless both trains are equipped with the system, it won't work. So if on<147,1,7>ly one train is fitted with the ACD, it won't be able to detect another train coming in its way — and the accident will happen. You need two ACDs — one on the locomotive at the front and the other at the rear compartment — for the effective working of the system.

``An ACD can prevent collision only with another ACD-equipped train,'' says Rajaram. Also, if the trains are running at low speeds, say below 25 kmph, the ACD will not work.

``It takes just a policy decision to equip all our trains and stations with the ACD,'' Rajaram says. Currently there are 7,000 locomotives and 7,000 last compartments, in addition to around 8,000 stations.

As per estimates, it would require a total of Rs 1,600 crore to implement ACDs across our railways. Some work in this direction has already begun. The ACD system is currently being tested out in Ludhiana.

Also, Konkan Railways is now planning to project ACDs as an effective mechanism to prevent mid-air collision of aircraft. ``You can even install ACDs on high-rise buildings to avoid incidents like September 11 (terror attacks on the US),'' Rajaram claims.

A US-based agency has been appointed to market the system internationally.

Rajaram says that he is now working on making the ACD more intelligent, so that it virtually assumes the role of the engine driver.

``We are working on making even auto-driving of trains possible with the ACD. Then the driver can become a supervisor of the system,'' he says.

So will the ACD make our train journeys safer like never before? A great deal would depend on whether the Railways implement the system across the board as visualised by Rajaram.

And given the speed with which our bureaucracy takes decisions, it seems Rajaram and Konkan Railways need a fair amount of providence to have their brainchild working on all locomotives sooner.

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