IN RECENT months British train operators have suffered from massive disruption from fires close to their routes when acetylene gas cylinders were involved, or were suspected of being involved.

Acetylene is unusual in that there is risk of explosion even after the fire is out, leading to the emergency services imposing 200 m radius security cordons for up to 24 h. A warehouse fire in April led to the suspension of services into London's Cannon Street, London Bridge, Waterloo East and Charing Cross stations, bringing massive disruption.

Network Rail and the London Fire Brigade are now undertaking a six-month trial using remotely-operated vehicles to search for gas cylinders. The ROVs are deployed by defence technology company Qinetiq to search for cylinders, potentially allowing lines to be re-opened much sooner after a fire.

Three types of ROV are being trialled. Talon is a bomb disposal machine, with video and thermal imaging cameras. Black Max has a high-pressure water hose, and Brokk 90 is a heavy-duty mini-digger able to shift debris to reach cylinders.

Network Rail Head of Operations Derek Holmes said 'the deployment of ROVs will give us more options for faster resolution of incidents and hopefully lead to less disruption to services.'