Wheelchairs to fare better

Train carriages may be facing a re-design, thanks to an EU project aimed at cutting the number of deaths and serious injuries among wheelchair users travelling by rail.

The three-year project, Safe Interiors, is being co-ordinated by Bombardier and includes Alstom, MIRA and the Rail Safety and Standards Board. It is part of a wider EU-funded scheme, the Train Interior Passive Safety for Europe project. Safe Interiors will ascertain how to protect disabled passengers during an accident by providing improved safety systems for wheelchair users.

Major research is taking place at the Centre of Excellence in Crashworthiness and Impact Biomechanics, at the Bolton Automotive & Aerospace Research Group, in the School of Built Environment and Engineering at the University of Bolton.

The team will use a trolley test rig and humanoid dummies to study and model the behaviour of a wheelchair and its occupant at various crash speeds. It will then produce designs for optimised safe accommodation on board a train, including a choice of carriage layouts. The project will also assess existing railway vehicle layout and ergonomics requirements for the wheelchair and its occupant.



Vulnerable

‘Wheelchairs are tremendously vulnerable in an accident as they are not constrained,’ said Bolton project leader Prof Clive Chirwa. ‘During the Paddington train crash, wheelchairs were thrown around as the coaches piled on top of one another. Passengers were thrown from the train, and the wheelchair passengers became like missiles, as they were not fixed in place.’

According to safety experts, without restraint systems such as seat belts and improved compartment features, occupants have little chance to survive even in moderate speed accidents. This is because there is a build-up of high relative velocities between occupant and compartment even in low-speed accidents. There are a large variety of interior features for passengers to collide with and many loose items such as luggage that will be dislodged during an impact.

‘We will look at the scientific, engineering and design constraints,’ said Chirwa. ‘Another project will investigate the safety of other travellers — but protecting wheelchair passengers is the most difficult.’

The team will produce its research at the end of three years, then show the government and EU the need to improve safety systems for the disabled, including suggestions of where changes can be made.

As the number of new passenger rail services in Europe has grown — particularly commuter services in major metropolitan areas — so the potential for crashes has increased. There is also a trend towards increasing train speeds.

To handle this growth, new equipment for different services is being developed. Until recently, there were no European or industry standards governing the passive interior safety performance of these new designs.

As part of its Strategic Rail research agenda 2020, the European Rail Research Advisory Council (ERRAC) — an EU body set up to foster innovation and competitiveness on European railways — has outlined a target of an 80 per cent reduction in fatalities.

Safe Interiors was therefore established to follow on from previous projects Traincol, Safetrain and Safetram, which also looked at improving passive safety on the railways.

These projects included an evaluation of collision threats, including the identification of likely collision events and scenarios and a study of the body parts likely to be injured by vehicle interiors, given various likely crash profiles and the energy generated by them.

To determine which types of crash are most likely, the project leaders reviewed past accidents and evaluated their consequences, showing how car body structures could be altered to improve occupant’s safety without too much extra cost. A European Standard is now being completed, providing the framework for determining the crash conditions that railway vehicle bodies should be designed to sustain based on the most common accidents and associated risks. This will include suitable passive safety features to meet the structural requirements.

Now that the carriages themselves have been assessed, the EU is looking at the passengers within them. Taking train operators and manufacturers’ best practices and relevant regulations into account, as well as remembering the need for interiors to fulfil certain functions for passengers, the Safe Interiors team will produce new, safer interior designs.