Network Rail steps back from geofencing over safety fears

Award winning tech turns out to be less than accurate

Network Rail has become the latest company to flag the risks of smart technology implementations despite receiving a safety award for geofencing applications.

Network Rail and Connected Places Catapult were given the award at an industry event in London last June.

Three suppliers were part of the collaboration: OnWave, Track Tracker, and Tended.

However, less than a year later, Network Rail has issued a safety advisory [PDF] to the effect that the technology was restricted from use as ALO (Any line Open) warning devices.

Network Rail has "limited to safeguarded areas of work" the Product Acceptance (PA) certificates for devices from all three suppliers: OnWave, Track Tracker and Tended.

The safety notice reads: "The Technology shall not be used as a virtual fence for worker notification (personal warning) on ALO (Any line Open)."


Problems were identified during trials at Network Rail's Milton Keynes offices in January 2024.

A geofence is a virtual perimeter around a given area. In this instance, workers have a wearable device that keeps track of their position using data provided by a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), such as GPS. Stray into the wrong place, and the device will alert the user that they've wandered out of a designated safe zone.

It's a neat system, although we can imagine some downsides – alerts, for example, can be configured individually. According to one of the manufacturers, "In certain cases they could be sent to other members of the project staff, improving visibility and resilience."

We're sure nobody would dream of following the example set by certain online retailers of tracking workers' movements for purposes other than safety.

Keeping an eye on workers aside, the technology as implemented appears to have some serious flaws, starting with "Geo-fence area within the system not aligned with intended physical boundary," according to Network Rail's advisory. Other issues include problematic response times for alarms and the worrying "Inconsistency between system dashboards and physical locations."

Network Rail - the owner and infrastructure manager of the majority of Britain's railway network - described the issues as "general" and noted that each supplier had at least one of the problems.

We asked one of the vendors, OnWave, for its take on the situation but have not received a response.

Network Rail, told us: "We are keen to expand our use of geofencing technology on the railway and are undertaking testing to support that ambition. We've temporarily restricted our use of some aspects of the tech while that testing takes place but it still has a strong role to play in the safety of our people."

The Register understands that the restriction relates to work taking place alongside an open railway line, where site wardens remain the primary protection for workers. Geofencing wearables are handy but not the only source of protection. ®

Thanks to former vulture Gareth Corfield for the tip.

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