Wireless monitoring is helping Network Rail improve safety and cut service disruptions.
At its peak in 2011/2012 the cost of cable theft to GB rail infrastructure operator Network Rail was estimated at over £18m. There were 844 separate incidents, resulting in delays to passenger and freight services that totalled more than 5,743 hours.
That figure came down to below £13m in 2012/2013 based on 285 incidents and total delays of 2,671 hours, but the compensation Network Rail was forced to pay rail companies - known as Schedule 8 costs - in reimbursement for advance charges for access to the track was still £5.8m.
That total estimated cost does not include any figure attributed to the theft of cable from depots, engineering sites or storage areas, or the financial outlay incurred by increasing security controls or installing new security technology. In other words, the money being lost is actually much higher and is often passed on onto passengers in the guise of higher train fares.
Although Network Rail has not cracked the cable theft problem fully, the operator feels it is heading in the right direction. Its initial success was attributed to various factors, including the British Transport Police's Operation Tornado enforcement initiative, backed by the Home Office funded Metal Theft Unit set up in 2011. This required scrap metal recyclers to ask for photographic ID at the point of purchase. The subsequent Scrap Metal Dealers Act of 2013 also requires dealers to obtain a full licence and carefully record each sale of metal to deter a culture of 'no questions asked'.
The promotion of greater awareness amongst the public has also lead to greater reporting of suspicious activity to police. And cables have been marked to make them harder to steal and easier to identify by dealers. Network Rail has used forensic marking techniques based on molecular tags from RedWeb technology to deter thieves. The solution uses a permanent and transferrable dye available in grease and lacquer form that is difficult to remove and can be forensically matched to a database when detected on offenders' skin or clothing.
But the installation of new technology in the form of wireless CCTV cameras at known trouble spots, which snap photos of intruders, send alerts back to Network Rail operators and in some cases issue audible warnings from embedded speakers, has also played a crucial role.
A broad range of specialist CCTV suppliers have stepped forward to deliver suitable monitoring infrastructure, including Hertfordshire-based TEW Plus, which has been providing Network Rail with various systems since 2012.
One example specifically designed for trackside cable theft monitoring is Rock Cam, a battery-powered covert camera equipped with an infrared trigger that detects intruders in restricted areas at a range of up to 10 metres. Up to 8000 images at resolutions of 640x480 pixels are written onto removable storage cards, with lower resolution snaps emailed to operators via GPRS cellular transmissions, and alerts texted via SMS. An uncamouflaged version uses either solar, battery or mains power and also features a speaker which sounds a pre-recorded message when the infrared or microwave detector alarm is triggered to warn would-be thieves away, as well as a white LED floodlight that both acts as a deterrent and aids image recognition.
A rapid-deployment CCTV system uses cameras equipped with 3G communications capabilities, mounted on tall gantries protected by anti-climb mechanisms and offering a detection radius of up to 100m for a variety of parameters, including movement and body heat. And it is equipped with a public address system.
Network Rail has even deployed its own helicopter in an attempt to track down thieves, a tactic which has also been used by railway infrastructure owners in France, Belgium and Holland, often with the collaboration and support of local police.
CCTV monitoring and reporting technology is not dedicated solely to the prevention of cable theft; a wide variety of other use cases have been identified in the rail industry.
Another TEW Plus system, delivered in partnership with Amplicon, involves an overt level crossing monitoring solution designed to detect red light violations or trackside blockages or accidents. This stream video live at 25 frames per second to Network Rail operators over a wired broadband virtual private network (VPN) connection and stores images on an integral hard disk for up to 30 days.
The system uses radar and as well as light detection and ranging (lidar) technology to identify objects within the crossing barriers. It triggers the cameras on a positive contact to record in order to provide a retrospective view of any incident. An embedded PC stores both video images and lidar data streams from up to eight devices, with a cellular connection provided by a 3G router integrated into the PC housing to support remote maintenance and troubleshooting.
Though these level crossing systems can be equipped with Wi-Fi and cellular communications links, most use wired connections because of a perception amongst operators that cable networks provide greater security and reliability.
"In CCTV there is some hesitancy around losing data when it is so valuable, so if they can put it on a cable they will always do that, hands down," says Richard Munson, Amplicon UK sales manager. "If you think about Wi-Fi and home data networks, that about sums it up. There is improved security and redundancy on Wi-Fi now but people are still a little bit sceptical."
Another regular source of delays to passenger and freight services is accidents where vehicles crash into bridges.
TEW Plus installed Axis HD IP cameras with 720-pixel resolutions on 68 bridges spanning Network Rail routes as part of a scheme to assess the impact of vehicles crashing into them without having to send out an engineer. The project, called Bridge Strike, sees multiple cameras monitoring crucial parts of the bridge's infrastructure to gauge how far, if at all, it has moved against its standing.
"When a railway bridge gets struck by a lorry it takes hours for an engineer to go out and make sure its not falling down so trains can run over it again, and this causes Network Rail to pay out lots of money in compensation," says TEW Plus director Dave Farman. "So now we have eight cameras looking at the leading edges and bridgework and which uses a special zoom-in feature to see if the rivets are broken or if there are any bends in the metal."
The system feeds images back to a website that allows operators to make a manual comparison of before and after images to assess the damage.
"Everything runs of a solar-powered system with a battery that runs as a back-up," Farman says. "We remote-manage everything so it is only turned on for a short time when it is needed. There is an automatic process built into the website servers that when the operator clicks a Bridge Strike button on the screen, it goes away and gets a photograph from every camera for review."
Another company specialising in the supply of equipment to rail, traffic and transport and variety of other industries is Wireless CCTV. At the core of the firm's railway-approved Tower is an infrared 360-degree pan, tilt and zoom HD camera which takes 'evidential quality' images at 25 frames per second and sends back live videos via 3G cellular or satellite networks, plus speakers. It allow the control centre operator to challenge intruders audibly when detected. Network Rail has earmarked a range of uses for the Tower at trackside, level crossings and rail depots, including the prevention of metal theft, spotting trespassers and obstacle detection.
"We are taking live video snapshots in the main which can be sent at a rate of so many per day, generally one in the morning and one in the afternoon, plus an alarm system that sends live video to show what is generating the alarm, which can reduce the need for engineers to visit on site," says Dave Gilbertson, who is managing director at the UK arm of Wireless CCTV.
Both Wireless CCTV and TEW Plus are heavily involved in the development of a range of new rail-orientated CCTV applications which use a variety of different sensors and monitors to send alarms to cameras that then feed images back to central operators. Dubbed the 'Railway of Things', this includes flood-monitoring systems to detect dangerous water levels close to low-lying rails, landslip detection and track cant measurements that report back on what angle the rail is in case of warping due to high temperatures, subsidence or other ground disruptions. The idea is that regular collection of data and images from sensors and cameras will eventually allow rail operators to predict when problems might occur rather than simply react to them as and when they crop up.
"A lot of this is about collecting data and really understanding how useful it is," says Farman. "We know how to collect it but what we do not know is when the alarm will be sounded. If we can go back to operators with a minimum year's-worth of collection data, we might take away some of the guesswork."
Wireless CCTV has already implemented a landslip detection system that prompts cameras which sends alerts when sensors detect changes or events at particular locations.
"We put in a series of water sensors that are triggered if the water level reaches a certain threshold level and send an alarm back to the camera, which takes a picture of the location and feeds it back to the controller," Gilbertson explains.
"Generally it's a rapid-reaction type scenario where the alternative is to say 'well it has rained a lot so we had better go and see if there is a problem'. We use wind and solar powered equipment in remote areas where maintenance and site access is difficult."
Amplicon is also working on applications that capture large volumes of data from onboard train sensors in order to improve safety and efficiency, including the use of wireless CCTV to monitor the wheel bearings for signs of wear and tear and/or damage. Other sensor-orientated systems cover air conditioners, fire detectors, lighting controls, emergency alarms and door indicators, which relay information to the driver via onboard networks.
"We partnered a company that does interlocking systems for trains, and they have a new set-up that allows you to put in a 10Gbit/s Ethernet backbone, which is much more reliable [than wireless]," claims Darren Saxby, Amplicon engineering services sales manager. He agrees that wireless remains 'a touchy subject' for many train companies, "so they pass data along the train, supporting whatever application is required. But, if you snap a cable, we have [backup wireless] systems to work around that."
But, wireless or not, rail operators are keen to take advantage of monitoring technologies to raise safety and avoid the fines that result from delays caused by trackside crime.