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U.Va. Forms New Center For Safety-Critical Systems With Initial Focus On Railroads And Nuclear Industry

Feb. 18, 1999 -- When it comes to railroad or industrial safety, how safe is safe enough?

Two engineering professors at the University of Virginia have established a Center for Safety-Critical Systems to explore questions of safety with railroad industry officials and government regulators who oversee industries where safety is a matter of life and death. The goal is to make the current systems even safer for the public.

The new center at the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science is co-directed by Barry Johnson, a professor of electrical engineering, and Ted Giras, an electrical engineering professor with extensive experience in the railroad industry.

The Federal Railroad Administration has transferred $150,000 to the new center through an interagency agreement with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with another $150,000 to follow. This funding will allow the development of techniques to be used by the railroad industry in assessing the safety of modern rail transportation systems. Also, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has designated the U.Va. program as its "center for excellence" in safety-critical systems and has provided an additional $450,000 in funding for the center to study issues of safety in the nuclear industry. The center has received support for related projects from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Air Force.

"As a university center, we want to create new knowledge that can be used by industry to create safer systems, by regulators to write regulations or license operation of nuclear power plants, and by labor to educate the work force," Giras said. "We also will incorporate an educational component, primarily a series of courses for industry representatives involved in assuring the safety of critical systems."

The need for the center has grown out of two converging national trends in the railroad industry.

First, consolidation of the rail industry has joined companies with different communications systems that now must create smooth links to ensure interoperability and avoid dangerous mistakes. At the same time, very little new track is being built. So, as freight demands continue to grow, the need to use existing track more efficiently has intensified. The result has been rising traffic volume on existing track and a push for even greater use.

Second, along with these technical changes, regulation of the railroad industry also is changing. Instead of the current approach, which involves a regulatory body writing prescriptive rules, the system is moving toward performance-based standards, or "quantified safety," Johnson said. Under this approach, an independent third-party examines the safety of products to determine

whether they meet performance standards, rather than depending on suppliers to certify that their products match the "specs" issued by the regulatory body.

The increasing complexity of the systems running the trains have made it tougher to assess how safe the systems are and how safe they should be. "This area of quantified safety is U.Va.'s

niche," Johnson said. "We will be designing computer methodologies that can quantify and assess the safety of complex systems, such as those used in the transportation, power generation, aerospace and process-control industries. Basically, what we're trying to do is to create tools that will allow regulators to answer two questions: 1) How do I know this system is safe enough? and 2) How do I quantify how safe this system is?"

With an eye to global trends, the center also is on track to becoming a repository for European safety information and has agreed to open an information exchange with colleagues at the Technical University of Brunsweig, Germany, Giras said.

Last summer, the center held a seminar on safety-critical technology for members of the federal Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC), which will be writing new safety regulations for "positive train control" systems. The 40 or so participants included representatives from all of the major American rail companies, labor officials, major suppliers of electronic equipment and officials from related government agencies -- the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Transit Administration. Prototypes of these train control systems are now being tested with an eye to fine-tuning them for future adoption by commercial operations.

Other institutions that have supported research in the field of safety-critical systems will be collaborating with the new center. They include: Carnegie-Mellon University, Pennsylvania State University's Transportation Institute, William & Mary College, the University of Maryland-College Park, the American Association of Railroads, the New York City Transit Authority, and NASA-Langley.

For more information about safety-critical systems in the transportation industry, contact Ted Giras by phone at (804) 924-6986, by fax at (804) 924-8818 or by email at; or, Barry Johnson by phone at (804) 924-7623 or by email at

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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