UK railways implement SA tech 

Johannesburg, 05 Oct 2006

High-speed processing technology, developed in SA, could soon be saving the lives of British rail commuters.

Parsec, a Pretoria-based electronics company, and the University of Warwick are developing a railway safety system that combines a series of train-mounted sensors with a Parsec processor to enable the real-time detection of cracks and other deformities in railway tracks.

Recent US statistics released by the Federal Railroad Administration, showed rail defects accounted for a third of the 2 200 train derailments in America every year. Parsec believes the successful development of this new technology stands to save many lives lost in railway accidents.

The collaborative programme forms part of the university`s Ultrasonics Research Group`s ongoing work to investigate new defect measuring technology. Parsec MD Petrus Pelser this week confirmed the technology would be tested in a series of development trials in the UK within the next few months.


BAE Systems, the international defence and aerospace company, broke news of the collaboration at the Africa Aerospace and Defence show in Cape Town in September, citing it as "another positive spin-off from SA`s Hawk and Gripen fighter aircraft procurement".

The contract provides that BAE Systems injects about $8.7 billion worth of new projects into the economy to offset the $2.2 billion acquisition. All state purchases worth more than $10 million are subject to offset arrangements.

"Without BAE Systems` support in assuring the University of Warwick of Parsec`s credentials and expertise, it is unlikely that we would have had an opportunity to participate in this exciting project and to test what we believe could be a major break through for safe rail transport," added Pelser.

Parsec has for some time been a supplier of processing components for the Eurofighter-Typhoon and Gripen fighter aircraft helmet-mounted display systems being produced for BAE Systems by Denel Optronics.

Savings, safety

The system relies on sensors transmitting a pulse into the rail and receiving reflections from it. The measurement instrument samples the received reflections, calculates the frequency at which they are reflected and then instantly processes the data to determine if a defect is present.

The electro magnetic acoustic transducer sensors were designed by the university, but the "brain" was designed by Parsec. "To detect defects on the railway line while the train is travelling at normal operating speed, the measurement instrument and processor requires simultaneous data sampling and high-speed digital signal processing on 16 channels at a continuous rate. Traditional computer-based software processing solutions are inadequate, hence the requirement for a totally new processor," Parsec`s head of corporate communications Elena Bielich explained.

Besides the obvious safety benefit, the system could deliver cost savings as train operators will be able to avoid unnecessary damage to their rolling stock, Parsec confirmed.

Rail track owners will be able to take preventative measures to maintain and repair damaged railway lines, thereby minimising disruptions to train services and lost revenue. "Given the will and funding, this technology could transform every train in the country (UK) into an army of highly sophisticated rail monitors with zero disruption to the rail network," enthused Dr Steve Dixon, the university`s head of ultrasonic research at the Department of Physics.