Idea of the Day: Airbags for Trains


I have lots of ideas, most are dumb, but sometimes they will stimulate good ideas in other people, who then go on to be rich and famous and forget all about me. 🙂 A blog is a handy way to get those ideas out there, without ever doing any real work on my part.

One guy who does this for a living is Seth Godin, who has a great blog where he provides these ideas free of charge. Not an altruist, he gets the benefits of his ideas by selling the many great books he has written on marketing (i.e. his blog is a form of marketing).

So my idea for the day was stimulated by watching a Bombardier ad. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain I remember comments on how train engineers experience a lot of psychological trauma when they experience a crash with vehicles or people.

Rarely is the engineer actually physically harmed, since in train vs. X crashes the train usually wins, but the psychological trauma can be life long, compounded by the fact that the engineer is helpless to do anything (can’t turn, trains slow down VERY slowly).

So here comes my idea: how about airbags for trains? What I mean is, an airbag that would extend from the front of the train milliseconds before an impending impact.

There are various ways that the system can be triggered, infra-red cameras, a probe that extends from the train, etc. A system that somehow involved the engineer might give them the psychological benefits of having something they can do about an impending crash. The best method would probably include an ‘opt out’ button that would allow the engineer to keep the (likely expensive) system from deploying when an impact with a deer, cow or large snow bank is likely.

Would the system actually save lives? I don’t know. I would like to think that a system that would distribute the force of an impact over a few meters (the thickness of the airbag) instead of a few millimetres (the relatively incompressible front bulkhead of the locomotive) would save lives; especially when the collision involves vehicles where the person is protected by their own metal cage, and even airbags of their own.

Fundamentally it is money that prohibits such a system. Hopefully some company would be able to build a business case for such a feature, based on saved time off work for engineers involved in crashes, marketing benefits / PR for operators in competitive markets that decide to offer the feature on their trains, etc.

What do you think?

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5 Responses

  1. You know…it’s an interesting idea.

    I think you would need to make it engineer-operated, to prevent (as you said expensive) false-positives, and it being available at the flick of a switch WOULD give engineers a greater sense of control.

    I can’t think of any cases where a train-airbag would be a NEGATIVE. And while my knowledge of physics is bleak, I can’t help thinking that there’s SOME benefit to a slightly-giving air-cushion as opposed to an unyielding metal cow-catcher.

    Oh, but here’s a thought: how do you make the airbag soft and big enough to be a cushion, but not have it quickly drift down to the tracks and get run over by the train?

  2. Most people don’t realize that an airbag in a car is made of a metal mesh. Anyone who has experienced an airbag deploy will tell you it is actually quite painful, but the idea is that it is better than the alternative. Well… unless you are my brother in-law and experienced a false-deployment that knocked his teeth out.

    I was thinking that the airbag would actually be attached to the train to make it effective. 🙂

    On your point about it being engineer-operated, the reason I thought it would be better for the engineer to be able to disable it, instead of being charged of enabling it, is the psychological damage that would ensue if the driver was not paying attention at some moment where they could have helped. Since the mostly likely collisions with people occur at crossings, your idea may be better, since the engineer should really be paying attention when going through level crossings.

  3. Oh for sure, I see the airbag attached to the front of the train as well. I didn’t know they were made of mesh! I suppose that a big, puffy mesh bag would be easier to keep oriented than a big, puffy, canvas bag or something.

    Maybe I didn’t make myself too clear in the last post (9am, no coffee, still waking up). The train is moving very fast and is surrounded by a ton of swirling wind. Any object in that wind is automatically directed AROUND the engine, opposite to the direction the train is travelling, right?

    So if something that isn’t totally rigid is attached to the front of the train, the wind will want to catch that object and yank it back along the train, with the added fact that gravity will be trying to pull it down.

    That seems to be the feasibility issue for me: how to inflate something that is only semi-rigid (an air-filled metal mesh) that is big and protruding enough to cushion a blow, but not to just get projected out to the sides of (or, worse, over or under) the train by the forces of wind and gravity? It seems that in order for it to stay oriented out the front, it will need to be so rigid that it will smash up the car anyway.

    But I know very little about physical forces or engineering or cool new materials! I figured air bags were made out of parachute material. 🙂

  4. To answer both your queries about how to create enough force to overcome wind, and how to inflate a partial mesh, you use a lot of propellant. Propellants (like gunpowder) basically work via a chemical reaction which turns a small amount of solid (powder) into a LOT of gas!

    To give you an idea of how violent the reaction is, in a car they have to carefully select where the main ‘vent’ of the airbag is (a big hole which keeps the bag from exploding and allows it to deflate after the impact) so that the driver’s hands don’t get burned. In some early implementations of airbags, the venting went out either side, which tended to burn drivers that used the 9 & 3 hand positions on the steering wheel.

  5. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this for a while — think it would definitely be a good idea.

    It would be fairly easy to use cameras / radar to discover objects on the track (false positives can be identified –simply do a few runs on each route, then the system can be set to know what to ‘expect’ on the route and only activate if there was something that appeared that shouldn’t be there)

    In the UK standing in front of an express train is quite a common way for people to kill themselves : even if the system didn’t work 100% if would still be a large deterrent to people killing themselves in this way. (ie, if it was publicised that the system was in place)

    Good idea, try approaching a train service about it?

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