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Giras laying new tracks for railroad safety
Ted Giras
Photo by Jenny Gerow
“U.Va. has developed the methodology and tools to conduct sophisticated safety assessments. ... Our goal is to be the global leader in this field.”
Ted Giras, Director, Center of Railroad Safety-Critical Excellence

By Charlotte Crystal

Americans take safe trains for granted, and Ted Giras wants to keep it that way.

Giras, director of U.Va.’s Center of Railroad Safety-Critical Excellence and a research professor of electrical engineering, is working with federal regulators and the nation’s railroad executives to support the launch of new safety standards for the railroad industry.

A few high-profile train accidents in the mid-1990s led the National Transportation Safety Board to press the Federal Railroad Administration to improve train safety. So a few years ago, the country’s century-old system of railroad safety standards was transformed into what regulators hope will be a safer and more effective system.

Under the new system, equipment manufacturers and railroad operators no longer have to meet “prescriptive” safety standards, which set out specific requirements that the products had to meet and that the FRA used to enforce. Instead, under the new “performance”-based system, they have to calculate the risk posed by products and services and ensure that the new products are at least as safe as the old products. So a manufacturer who wants to sell an innovative, new train control system has to demonstrate to the FRA that it offers a lower level of risk – in terms of the cost to society per million passenger miles traveled — than systems already on the market.

Finding a way to calculate the risk of equipment failure and its potential cost to society is not your average math problem. But researchers at the Center of Railroad Safety-Critical Excellence used a sophisticated simulation of a specific train line to develop a process – an Axiomatic Safety-Critical Process, dubbed ASCAP – to assess risk.

By this fall, Giras and his team had secured research contracts worth more than $8 million to support their work – designing the methodologies needed for safety assessment, as well as creating software toolsets and training programs to support the new performance-based standards.

An initial grant from the FRA last year allowed Giras to establish the center at U.Va. and create an industry advisory board in collaboration with the Association of American Railroads. It also will enable the center to create a related, Web-based set of software tools and provide industry training.

“U.Va. has developed the methodology and tools to conduct sophisticated safety assessments,” Giras said. “What we do goes well beyond research. Our goal is to be the global leader in this field.”

Giras and his research staff – experts in cognitive psychology and in electrical, computer, civil and systems engineering — are pursuing several projects linked to train safety. In addition to the initial grant from the FRA, the center has received a grant from Lockheed Martin Corp. to study the safety of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s train-control system between Chicago and St. Louis.

The center also has received a five-year grant from the New York City Transit Authority to provide a design for the safety assessment of a $135 million train control system planned for Brooklyn’s Canarsie line that is being developed by Siemens Transportation Systems-MATRA Transport International, a Paris-based subsidiary of Siemens AG that has been contracted to install similar train-control systems in many major subways around the world, including those in Paris and Mexico City.

Still another project in the works involves a high-speed maglev train, which is elevated and directed along a guide-way by electromagnets. If a $1 billion proposal pending in Congress passes, the FRA would choose between Pittsburgh and Baltimore early next year as the test site for a 45-mile-long, 250 mph suburb-to-city commuter train line. The U.Va. center has been tapped to do the safety assessment portion of the Pittsburgh project. A special computer, funded by Maglev Inc. of Pittsburgh, will enable the center to develop the Web-based software for the FRA project as well as facilitate the maglev project, Giras said.

Giras also is looking to extend the reach of his center overseas. The U.Va. center has cooperated with Germany’s University of Dresden and the Technical University of Brunsweigh since 1999.

Last summer, Giras went to China and in December hosted faculty members from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. They explored opportunities for exchanges and research collaborations, like creating a rail safety-critical center in China to support performance-based safety standards in Asia for mag-lev and other high-speed rail and transit railways.

“Our goal is to create a set of tools that can be used not only by the railroad industry, but also by other vital industries, such as power generation and aerospace, in the U.S. and worldwide,” Giras said.


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