UK’s Network Rail drones cut costs, delay times from trespassers on train tracks

Network Rail drones trespassers

British Transport Police are teaming up with Network Rail – the owner and operator of most of the UK’s train infrastructure – in deploying drones to combat what has become a very time- and money-consuming problem in recent years: delays due to trespassers on or around tracks.

After previous trials going back to 2018, Network Rail said this week that units of the British Transport Police have begun piloting drones over sections of track in the eastern part of England to first spot, then get to and clear intruders from the off-limits areas. Network Rail says it has timed the move to coincide with school vacation and half-term periods that usually correspond with an increase of dangerous, potentially deadly trespassing around lines.

Patrols are concentrated on the East Anglia area of England, where police units are flying drones equipped with HD, high-powered zoom lenses and thermal imaging sensors to detect unauthorized people near rail lines, or pinpoint those that have been identified by other means. Fixing the exact location of trespassers allows other law enforcement personnel to reach them faster, and reduce the amount of time that train activity is cut when intruders are determined to be present around rolling stock infrastructure.

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Cutting both the number and duration of such disruptions is a growing priority for Network Rail, and a driving motivator behind its decision to call in drone deploying police. 

During its last full accounting year that began in April 2021, the company recorded 1,105 cases of trespassing that generated 48,702 minutes of train delays, at a cost of just over $4 million. Since April of this year, 572 intrusions have resulted in 21,021 delay minutes, worth about $1.5 million.

Just as important, say Network Rail officials, is the potential loss of limb or life risked in the invasions of banned spaces around rails, as well as the terrible emotional and psychological damage often inflicted to the families of victims, and driving crew of trains involved in collisions.

To help minimize, if not eliminate that, Network Rail is pursuing its use drones to patrol and police its tracks as a faster and more efficient means of keeping tracks free of trespassers.

“We’re already seeing the benefits of having this technology, in terms of finding people quickly and reducing the length of delays for passengers,” says Ellie Burrows, Network Rail’s route director for East Anglia. The railway is full of danger, both obvious and hidden and this new equipment will help us and the British Transport Police to keep everyone safe.”

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