Geofencing: innovative technology to improve trackside worker safety

Network Rail and Connected Places Catapult won the Safety Award at the Railway Industry Association’s Railway Industry Supplier Excellence awards on 29 June for their work to take forward a new piece of technology known as ‘geofencing’.

The challenge

Rail trackworkers are an essential and valued part of the Network Rail workforce, performing essential installation and maintenance activities. They work on challenging tasks in challenging environments, often through the night. Their safety is a priority, and over the years much progress has been made to improve the ways in which operations are conducted and the equipment used.

While the UK has one of the best rail safety records in Europe, developments in processes and technology are continually being pursued to improve worker safety.

With this in mind, Network Rail and Connected Places Catapult have worked together to develop wearable safety devices that allow rail workers to be alerted as soon as they step out of a safe zone, defined by a virtual ‘geofence’ perimeter.

Workers can unintentionally find themselves in a position of danger if they lose situational awareness, which can be described as being unaware of or confused about their position, relative to where they think they are or where they should be.

There can be a number of causes for this, such as working on complex tasks requiring close focus, working in the dark, fatigue and cold, or in generally difficult environmental conditions.

Network Rail has identified geofencing technology as a potential solution to improve the safety of trackside working. Geofencing is a location-based technology where a mobile, cloud-based app or other software uses GPS, radio frequency ID (RFID), Wi-Fi or cellular data.

A mobile device can be worn to alert workers when entering or exiting a virtual boundary set up around a geographical location, known as a geofence. This provides an additional ‘tap on the shoulder’ for workers if they inadvertently stray outside of safe working limits. It would be deployed alongside and in addition to existing safety protocols and procedures.


Connected Places Catapult has been supporting Network Rail in developing this rail safety innovation. This was achieved by working with the client to first identify core technical needs and articulate these in the form of a challenge statement, providing criteria to test the market via a design contest process.

The aim of the process was to identify potential technology solutions that may be at different stages of development or applied in other sectors.

The design contest process enabled Network Rail to source three innovative technology solutions from three suppliers. Connected Places Catapult partnered with Network Rail to then test and trial their geofencing solutions in an operational track environment during a 10-week trial period. The Catapult oversaw the trials, working in close collaboration with the Network Rail Safety Task Force team and local route team.

The collaboration provided an excellent opportunity for the technology to be developed; firstly testing the solutions for accuracy and functionality, and then testing the devices across a variety of track scenarios and operations. Feedback was obtained from track workers, while the device suppliers developed their own understanding of how the devices could be developed.

By the end of the trial period, the three suppliers Tended, Track Tracker and Onwave had devices that were close to deployment at Network Rail while the route teams and the Safety Task Force team gained an understanding of where Network Rail would best make use of the technology.

Next steps

Connected Places Catapult developed a trial report structure that was used by the suppliers to facilitate onward implementation and use of the innovations.

A short animation to describe the technology was produced as part of the output of the trial project. This can now be used across Network Rail to outline the technology and facilitate potential deployment.

The devices will be tested against British Standards to prove functionality, for example performance under extreme conditions.

How Connected Places Catapult added value

A design contest is a procurement process that provides the option of engaging with successful suppliers at the end of the process via a service contract.

The overall process has provided an opportunity for SMEs to engage with Network Rail and bring their innovative technologies to the rail sector, and to test and refine the technology through the trials.

Connected Places Catapult’s support to the process was through project management and technical input. Our project management covered the delivery and governance of trial requirements between the Network Rail routes and SMEs. Connected Places Catapult ensured a robust testing environment across the route teams, and shared learning and best practice between the trial locations. We guided the tests, the testing schedules across the trial locations, and the final reporting output.

Network Rail has benefitted by exploring a new, innovative technology which has been demonstrated on live track environments. Service contracts would allow for implementation with the suppliers.

The benefit to suppliers was experience of working with track maintenance teams and the invaluable opportunity to develop their products with input from the end-users. The opportunity to demonstrate the functionality of their technology with Network Rail across a range of activities provided credibility of their devices in the rail sector.

Furthermore, the trials and evidence gathered has progressed the devices through the Network Rail product acceptance process. If the device suppliers continue to obtain full product acceptance, this would enable the devices to be used across Network Rail as well as provide significant interest across UK and European rail sectors.

Although the devices were all slightly different at the start of the trial process, Technology Readiness Level (TRL) development of each has developed from around TRL 4/5 to TRL 7. Further requirements are now being developed by the Network Rail sponsor to ensure the devices are ready for deployment.

It is understood that the suppliers have all benefitted from the trials through securing commercial contracts or further funding for technology development.