A 2008 FTA report estimated that about 25% of the rail and bus assets in the U.S. are close to or beyond their useful life. For the nine largest transit agencies, the corresponding percentage is nearly 35%. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is seriously concerned about the safe operations of the current rail transit industry after investigating the July 2006 Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line derailment accident, concluding that the accident was caused by the failure of the tie plates and fastening systems. A member of the NTSB warned that this accident is a “wake up call … to all transit agencies … with equipment and infrastructure that age with each passing day.”

Sponsored by the USDOT’s RITA and led by a team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the objective of this research is to develop an automated rail infrastructure inspection system for monitoring the health conditions of rail gauge, concrete ties, fastening systems, and ballast. This system integrates ground penetrating radar, laser, global positioning systems, and geographic information systems and is able to automatically detect and locate both surface and subsurface safety hazards. Compared to the current manual inspection procedures based on visual observation, this automated system can substantially improve the rail inspection safety, efficiency, and accuracy.