Understanding When and How to Use Detonators

Detonators have been used as a safety protection mechanism on the railway for over 180 years: are there better alternatives?

Detonators are used to warn staff of potential hazards on the line ahead. They are placed on the railhead and the explosive is detonated when a train wheel runs over them. However, handling explosive devices and deploying them on the track can expose staff to safety incidents and near misses. Detonators have also been associated with incidents of theft and vandalism.

Detonator on track

A review of detonators, published in 2005, supported their continued use on the railway on the basis that potential alternatives do not provide adequate protection in all circumstances. Since then, advances in technology mean that detonators may no longer, in some situations, be the most appropriate solution.

RSSB is currently conducting a case-by-case review of the benefits and risks associated with the use of detonators. This research, which is due to be published at the end of 2019, aims to determine the suitability of the continued use of detonators to control hazards in each scenario and identify cases where a safety benefit can be gained through the removal or replacement of detonators, or where the continued use of detonators can no longer be considered reasonably practicable. Once complete, an implementation project will focus on testing new approaches in practice. Do get in touch if you are interested in being involved.

We are also undertaking research that will explore evidence on the extent to which detonators are audible to staff, including the driver and trackworkers, and the factors that might affect audibility such as weather, train cab insulation, train running speed, ambient sounds and track joints. The aim is to create, test and validate a model that can be used by operators and infrastructure managers to predict the audibility of detonators by drivers and track workers across the range of conditions.


Topics covered:

  • Detonators
  • Safety protection mechanisms


GMRT2160 Issue 4: Environment Inside Railway Vehicles - Audibility of detonators
GEGN8532: Guidance on 'Signals, Railway Track, Explosive' (also known as 'Detonators')
Review of the continued use of detonators (T507)
Reviewing the risks and benefits of detonator usage (T1155)
Evaluating the effectiveness of detonator and possession limit board protection (T1167)
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