Does the UK need so many Level Crossings?

Rail Professional - June 2013

At the tail end of 2012 Network Rail and the British Transport police introduced to a small number of level crossings, vans equipped with cutting edge camera technology to record and clamp down on level crossing misuse. They are ultimately there to change drivers' behaviour, with each van housing nine cameras capable of instantly recognising a car's number plate and issuing a prosecution.

As part of its £130 million nationwide improvement programme, Network Rail - also hopes to improve level crossing safety through a number of other measures, such as replacing footpath crossings with footbridges that have warning lights; deploying 100 level crossing managers at designated level crossings and raising safety awareness in schools and communities. There is something in the region of 9000 level crossings in the UK Around 7000 of these are managed by Network Rail, with the rest located on heritage railways, metro systems and industrial railways. While I believe teaching level crossing safety is admirable and that me new footbridges and managers will marginally help improve safety, I am not convinced that prosecuting motorists is the right way [0 improve safety and eliminate risk at level crossings. Yes,the British Transport Police vans at those few locations will deter motorists from doing anything silly at that particular point, but what about when the vans are not there, and what about all the other level crossings? What ongoing cost would we be looking at to have vans stationed and manned at all level crossings?

An unacceptable price

In the past five years level crossing misuse has received Widespread media attention. We see images of reckless motorists and pedestrians risking their lives to beat closing barriers and the oncoming train, simply because, or so it appears, these people lack the patience or good sense to wait. When mainstream media first brought its attention on this subject, the number of recorded level crossing offences that year was close to 3500. These offences created the equivalent of 55 days of delays to trains and passengers and cost Network Rail something in the region of £1.8 minion. 15 people were also killed. That is a heavy and unacceptable price to pay every year.

Prosecuting level crossing misuse alone as a means of controlling risks is not the best way to make them safer. The act of committing suicide is already illegal, so the law means nothing to a person who has made up their mind and decided this is what they want to do. Suicides are determined people and will still use a level crossing for their act if they can. Likewise, genuine accidents occur all the time to motorists and pedestrians, and any legal clampdown on level crossing misuse will not fully prevent those accidents from happening on crossings
again in the future. The law does have a role and makes an impact, and so to do awareness raising campaigns, but in this case they are not a final solution.

Changes to infrastructure

There are alterations that could be made to the infrastructure to dramatically enhance the safety of level crossings, which in turn will save lives. And when you consider the cost in time and money caused by level crossing issues, the COST of upgrading the infrastructure and making level crossings safer for rail passengers, road users and pedestrians is a worthwhile investment that would repay itself in years.

For instance, a physical barrier, such as a 6ft high-concertinaed barrier coming from out of the ground, similar to those at 10 Downing Street, or tyre spikes coming up out of the road, or a combination of both, would prevent vehicles from accessing level crossings when they shouldn't. In addition to that measure, it is perfectly feasible to have sensors in operation at level crossings to inform the driver and automatically slow the train if the presence of people, vehicles, livestock or wildlife was detected on the crossing. The train would slow to a halt and the chance of casualties would be greatly reduced. But even so, these are not totally failsafe methods.

A stark choice to be made

America has no protection on its railroad crossings and there are a high number of reckless incidents, accidents and suicides each year. The Netherlands, in complete contrast, has a high number of safety measures on its level crossings and has very few incidents, accidents and suicides, but they still do Happen. So no matter how
well we protect and guard against all of these situations on level crossings in me UK, they will in all likelihood continue.

Level crossings will still produce ongoing fatalities, just fewer, probably, and we would be caught in an evolutionary cycle of performing risk analysis and making
improvements. But to what end? Where do you draw the line and say enough is enough and ask the question: Is it really possible to make level crossings totally safe?
The only true way to produce this is co have a full separation between pedestrians, vehicles and trains, and to achieve that means changing the layout and structure of every level crossing. However, this all comes down to cost. Are we willing and able to fund a long-term programme of works to simply remove level crossings or not?

It's a stark choice, but one that needs to be made at some point.


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