Adding an Alarm Button to Railway Crossings

I am Jan Jaap de Groot, an alumnus from Human-Computer Interaction and Design track. I went to Hackatrain, an event regarded as one of the most unique hackathons in the world and in its fifth edition this year. I won its Grand Prize of a tech trip to San Francisco with my team.

For me, the event experience started on the 28th of March when I signed up to attend the selection evening for the team of, the largest tech website in The Netherlands. Then the selection was held on the 11th of April in Amsterdam. We heard more about Hackatrain, ate dinner together with all participants and moved on to an escape room. We were watched by some Tweakers employees: are you a leader or a follower, are you suggesting ideas or finding new clues? After completing the escape room, we headed back to the Tweakers HQ where each of us had to do an elevator pitch. The pitch was just between you and some Tweakers employee, in a private room. At the end of the evening, the team composition was announced, and I was chosen as one of the team members.

On June 7th, a pre-gathering was organised in Utrecht, where all of the participants of Hackatrain met each other. The whole day was filled with talks, workshops and (vegan) food. The tomato burgers and vegan saté were my favourites!

One month later, on the 1st of July, the hackathon itself took place. The starting point was in Amsterdam. Just before departing, the challenges were announced: one from BMW & ParkNow about autonomous parking, and one from Vodafone about new possibilities of 5G for trains. With our team, we were placed in the 5G challenge.

This year we had a private train, yes, a whole train, for all participants. No disturbance from other travellers (and vice versa) and fewer stops! Most teams, including ours, used most of the 5-hour train ride for brainstorming. We decided to focus on the train driver: how to reduce (deadly) accidents. The train driver is the first responder even in case of a deadly accident. Many train drivers experience trauma or even PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) from the things they have to see. Our goal was to find a way to get the train to stop earlier. It takes up to 500 meters for a train to come to a full stop. It is often impossible for the train driver to look that far ahead. Let alone detecting objects on the rails, or people nearby the rails. 

A couple of months ago, four children in The Netherlands were killed after the vehicle they were transported in got stuck on the rails. Bystanders tried to help but shortly after the train crashed into the vehicle. We imagined the despair of people watching a potential accident happening, not knowing what to do. What can you do? Calling the police takes too long. Calling the railway takes too long. Basically, there is no way to immediately let the driver of the upcoming train know to stop!

The solution we came up with is to add an alarm button to the railroad crossings, similar to a fire alarm. When the alarm button is pressed, the video recording of the railroad crossing is streamed to the nearest train driver over 5G. Benefits of 5G, in this case, are that the latency is super low and there is enough bandwidth to stream in 4K. In our prototype, the train driver receives a notification on his devices and the live-stream is displayed. The train driver can make the decision to brake, slow down or do nothing at all.

We created a working prototype consisting of a macOS app which received the live-stream from a smartphone. We used Vodafone IoT hardware to make a button, which made a socket connection over 3G to our server. The server, hosted using IBM cloud, notifies the macOS app with a notification whenever the button is pressed.

With this solution, we won the Grand Prize and the IBM Partner Prize. The Grand Prize is a tech trip to California for the whole team. We will fly to Los Angeles on the 10th of November, drive electric vehicles to San Francisco and return on the 23rd of November. Looking at the Alumni Map, it looks like 15 alumni are living in San Francisco. Perhaps they can share some must-see things!


Jan Jaap de Groot


Adding an Alarm Button to Railway Crossings(1 - Pitching our idea. 2 - working in the dusk. 3 - team photo taken on the train. Photo cc MPH Fotografie & Boost Breda)