New app to help prevent tram and train accidents being tested in Prague and Brno

Photo: Lenka Žižková

POZOR TRAMVAJ! is a new app developed by the company Safe Public Transport. Its Bluetooth-based system sends out warning signals about approaching trams to users of mobile devices and could help prevent the frequent accidents involving pedestrians and public transport in cities. The company also believes that the system can be applied to other vehicles such as trains, buses and ambulances.

Ever since the introduction of trams on Czech streets there have been associated accidents. The most destructive have been caused by trams going off the rails or crashing into other vehicles. However, cases when a pedestrian is knocked down by a tram, causing either serious injury or death, are not infrequent.

In fact, with the exception of 2020, when streets were significantly less busy due to government enforced coronavirus measures, the past 15 years were marked by at least one death involving a tram every year. Meanwhile, cases of non-lethal accidents involving a tram have ranged in the high double digit numbers for years. For example, in 2019, there were over 80 such cases.

Photo: Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

What often causes such accidents is the lack of attention given by pedestrians to their surroundings, because of distractions caused by their interactions with mobile devices such as phones and mp3 players.

To help prevent these accidents the Prague Public Transit Company, which manages public transport in the Czech capital, has been testing a new app developed by the company Safe Public Transport.

Lukáš Rajsner is the director of Safe Public Transport. He says that the app is a unique idea and is currently in the process of being patented.

“The first impulse for developing such an app came from the high number of accidents on train tracks, as well as with trams. It is very difficult for these vehicles to stop quickly enough when such incidents occur. It takes several seconds after applying the brakes, during which the train or tram is still moving. For this reason, we looked at the idea of informing the individual about the possible danger, because it is easier for the individual to move than for the vehicle.”

Photo: archive of Safe Public Transport

The application that Mr. Rajsner and his team came up with works through the short-range wireless technology known as Bluetooth, which is incorporated within most modern smartphones.

“We chose to use Bluetooth, because it is widely available and it uses a small amount of battery power, less than one percent with this app. Furthermore, many people today have Bluetooth generally switched on, for example, because they use wireless headphones which operate on the Bluetooth system. We also set up the app in a way that when you install it, Bluetooth automatically switches on.”

The trams which have been designated for testing in Prague are the 9, 11 and 22 lines - 97 trams in total. Each of these vehicles is fitted out with a unique signal device that transmits waves using Bluetooth. The device, which has the app installed and Bluetooth switched on, receives these transmissions and lets out a warning signal that the paths of the tram and the user are about to cross.

Mr. Rajsner explained how the system works in practice.

Prague | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

“The application is primarily targeted at pedestrians who pay insufficient attention to their surroundings. These people may be on a call, listening to music, or scrolling through social media with their headphones on. The app user can select the type of sound which will inform him of a potentially hazardous tram in his surroundings. The distance, at which the alarm sets off, ranges between 70 to 120 metres, depending on the type of mobile device, but also on the evaluation of the surroundings. For example, it depends on whether the tram is on a street, or just making a turn. The user gets a cautionary notification along with a sound signal, which can be either the sound of a tram, a beep, a melody, or a vibration. We do not want the app to annoy the user, which is why he or she can select the method through which they receive the warning.”

The application has been in development for five years now and started being tested in Prague at the beginning of February this year. Within 30 days it was downloaded by 4,000 people in the capital. Many of the users have also actively sent feedback to the developers, who are still tweaking the application.

For example, the company has received a request from one of the country’s main associations for the deaf and blind, which has asked the developers to add features that would enable such clients to discern which tram number is approaching and the direction in which it is headed.

The success of POZOR TRAMVAJ! in the capital has led to the application now also being tested in the second largest city in the Czech Republic - Brno. The Moravian capital also registers dozens of pedestrians being hit by trams every year. It’s Councillor for Transport Petr Kratochvíl says that these tend to occur especially in the crowded centre of the city.

Brno | Photo: Benoît Rouzaud,  Radio Prague International

“Brno too is affected by accidents involving pedestrians and trams, especially in the pedestrian zones in the centre of the city. For example, the main square in our city has trams riding through them and several people nowadays live in a bubble with their mobile devices switched on. The frequency of tram traffic, combined with pedestrians and cyclists, makes it a safety concern. “

It is for this reason that the testing of POZOR TRAMVAJ! was initiated on tram line number 4, which passes through Brno’s central square, where the danger is most serious. Testing began on Wednesday and will run for a period of three months.

Just as in Prague, the trams in question are fitted out with sensors and stickers featuring a QR code, through which people can download the application.

Councillor Kratochvíl says that the city welcomes the innovation as an example of smart traffic solutions in modern cities. However, there are still practical questions which need to be answered through the testing, before the app is adopted by the city in full.

“We want to evaluate this method from a technical perspective, because we do have a few questions regarding how the system works. For example, it is not clear whether, when the tram passes through areas where there are cars, drivers who use the app will also get the signal. We want to sort these questions out in the testing period and also see how popular the app will be among the public. We will then make a decision on whether to expand testing to other lines, or whether to go straight to general usage.”

In Prague, if everything goes according to plan, POZOR TRAMVAJ! could be set up as a permanent preventative measure starting from this summer, says Safe Public Transport Director Lukáš Rajsner.

Photo: David McKelvey,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

He stresses that POZOR TRAMVAJ! is based on a more universal application developed by the company called SAFE, which can also be used to prevent train or ambulance accidents.

“It is a universal device which can be placed into any type of mobile device. We chose to focus on trams and trains, because there is a serious hazard involving these vehicles. For example, just last year, 245 people were killed after being hit by a train. Tram incidents reach similar numbers. However, the device can also be used with buses, or ambulances. We tested the system on ambulances in Brno already.”

If the company’s optimism is vindicated, and its system proves to be reliable, it could also help lower one of the most alarming safety statistics in the Czech Republic. Train accidents result in over 1,000 casualties every year in the Czech Republic, according to the Railway Inspection Authority, of which 250 are deaths.

However, this statistic also needs to be compared with Eurostat data, which shows that the majority of deaths caused by train impact are actually suicides. On average, around 200 people in the Czech Republic commit suicide this way. An alarming number when compared with other EU member states. The data is only worse in Germany (646 in 2019) and France (261), both countries with significantly larger populations.

Nevertheless, any reduction in casualties on train lines would be welcome. Lukáš Rajsner explains that, because the app can be downloaded onto any mobile device, it can also be used in cars. Fitted into an automobile’s GPS system, the app would therefore not only send out a warning signal upon the approach of a train, but could also alert the driver before they approach a hazardous train crossing, making the person aware and giving them sufficient time to prepare for any possible danger.

If such experiments do turn out to be successful, Safe Public Transport could help revolutionize transport safety.