Contribution to the LX Debate
As the recently retired (31.05.09) HM Principal Inspector of Railways leading HMRI's then National Level Crossing National Expertise Team (now disbanded), your Editor has asked me to contribute to the local debate that has taken place following the tragedy at Halkirk AOCL level crossing. It would be wrong to discuss that tragedy as it is still being investigated by various agencies, coupled with which, it occurred after I had retired. I am a career railway signal engineer with, by the time this is published, some 42 years continuous employment as a railway signal engineer within the UK railway industry, now running my own one man railway consultancy business.
I first became involved with level crossings as a consultant working for Transmark (BR's former consultancy group) where I undertook some of the early modernisation technical work for Railtrack (Scotland) level crossings at Brasswell, Kirknewton and St Germains and similar studies in Northern Ireland. Whilst working for Transmark, as a mature student, I studied Railway Systems Engineering at Sheffield University where my dissertation was centred around level crossings versus bridges, in terms of costs, and public understanding of level crossing signs and signals that form part of the Highway Code.
I was able to show, using Northern Ireland Railways as a base case, that it is/was possible to close 65% of their public level crossings (61 public LXs in use at the time of study) by building 8-9 bridges, 1.25km of new highway, buying several small landowners out and downgrading 3 LXs to private/semi private status. The benefits would be vastly reduced taxpayer expense in renewals, ongoing maintenance, and reduction in risk taking by the users, with little or no real inconvenience in a rural car owning community; the downside and real issue facing LXs is the total lack of political will, nationally and locally, lack of mutual co-operation between legislative bodies, the 465-odd Highway Authorities and 200+ railway companies in the UK to take long term action for the wider good of society, rather than continue the short term crisis style, nanny state, and 'not in my back yard.
I am currently on the advisory group working with the Scottish & English Law Commission's review of LX legislation' inspired approach.
My team (I and one other 'deep' specialist) managed the modernisation of level crossings nationally in England, Scotland & Wales, acting for the Secretary of State for Transport, in overseeing the requirements within the Level Crossings Act 1983, the public consultation processes, chairing public meetings when held, technical assessment against standards, and legal assessment (highway, railway and other legislation) of railway companies proposals at specific LXs, undertaking a review of objections, resolving those objections where possible, and making recommendations to the SoS delegated authority as to the final arrangements at the site.
After installation and commissioning and settling in periods, we carried out statutory inspections of the modernised LX with railway and consultee representation present, resulting in a report directed at the railway and occasionally others to put right deficiencies. In that capacity I undertook the assessments and inspection of the LXs at Marrell (Helmsdale) Acheildh No 2 (Nr. Lairg), Rovie, Delny and Blackwood No 2 (Kyle line). In this area I have also had involvement with incidents at Delny and Bunchrew, Dalfaber (Strathspey Railway) and carried other random inspections and minor modernisation activity on both the Far North and Kyle lines.
On one such inspection the train driver myself and the passengers were subjected to two near misses between Kyle & Inverness; the level crossing near miss was at Garve when an elderly motorist overtook the traffic that had stopped correctly - a collision was averted by the train driver's fantastic skill and observation of what was happening off the railway but within his field of vision. The very low train speed and 200 decibels of train horn in the motorist's ear is what prevented what would been a minor collision, but could still have been fatal for the motorist. The motorist was successfully prosecuted as a result of red light cameras and two statements given to BTP by myself and train driver.
The UK has one of the best safety records in the world. Recent research carried out in the UK and presented to an international audience of LX experts in Paris 2008, has shown that in the developed world it is normal to expect that 1% of the total road safety fatalities occur at LXs. In the UK, it is my belief, that we are averaging a figure around 0.4 of 1% e.g. about 60% less than say Germany or France.
We have averaged about 12-13 LX fatalities a year on all UK railways in England Scotland & Wales, of which pedestrians generally account for 10-11. Vehicle occupants account for the remainder. There are probably 20-30 collisions annually, all railways in the UK. Probably, over 90%+ of these accidents are the result of inadvertent or deliberate misuse of the LX by the road or pedestrian user. The remainder of fatalities are caused by railway company failings. Statistically these figures are so low that one additional accident adds a major percentage to annual figures which is very misleading and not very helpful.
Vehicular collisions can cause a high risk/possibility of a catastrophic rail accident like the Ufton incident. That is a very rare event - I believe there have been ONLY 6 such accidents in the history of UK railways where there have been 5 or more fatal injuries. That compares with 34 fatal road accidents in the Highlands alone in one year. My concern is that LXs get an unjustified 'bad press'. Tragically, there has been an accident tonight as I write this, with a passenger train having struck an HGV tanker on a rural LX. The HGV driver has been charged and unusually made a public apology on the local news.
The majority of LC fatalities in the UK are pedestrian with a high proportion of dog walkers involved trying to control dogs NOT on the leash. Elderly people feature heavily also, who are slow moving; there are those who will not turn on their hearing aids/wear glasses, and alcohol related incidents etc. In my opinion, pedestrians are not a safety risk to the railway - they are, tragically, a risk to themselves in cases where they are less than vigilant. [Editor: It is also sadly true that many suicides occur at LXs.] Rural areas also feature heavily in LC accidents, low rail traffic volumes, relatively clear roads etc. There have been many instances where the public think that it is safe 'because the timetable says the train went at 1000hrs' - it was late/early the day it struck the car! And more to the point, railway timetables issued to the public DO NOT show, for example, the Tesco express. On one inspection, the train I was travelling on failed at the top of Lairg summit, reversed to the station (another collision opportunity) and finally arrived at Wick/Thurso 4 hours late - the ideal circumstance for a serious incident if a motorist is in the wrong place at the right time, when that train arrives. There was a recent incident on the Cambrian Line involving an ERTMS test locomotive. "The train never runs at that time" was the motorist's excuse.
Most accidents involve individuals who live within a 20-25 mile radius of the LC - is complacency a big issue?
Generally speaking the public do not understand the Highway Code nor take their personal responsibilities to others seriously enough. As recently as last week, this has been confirmed once again by Swinton Insurance's recent survey of Highway Code signs; my own research revealed the same and included highly trained police traffic officers, albeit a small sample - their score never went above 75% understanding.
Excuses by the public would be amusing, if not so serious: ........'the signalman smashed the barriers down on my car deliberately'.........that is an impossibility because the red lights have to be alight and proved working before the system allows the barriers to lower.
'I didn't see the train because the sun was in my eyes' - being dazzled by the sun is a hazard of life NOT level crossings - it must affect every set of traffic lights in the UK, worse in Scotland due to the Northerly latitude. The Highway Code is very clear on subject - STOP driving if you are dazzled by the sun; it is your personal responsibility to control your vehicle in poor weather conditions. None of us can control such natural events.
At Moulinearn, there was lots of discussion about rear view mirrors obstructing sign visibility. Again that is a well documented hazard of driving, NOT level crossings. I have witnessed motorists at Dalfaber and Delny stopping to look up and down the track. I arranged for the farmer at Delny who did that about 6 times in a three hour period to receive some informal advice (not prosecution) from the local BT police about his apparent death wish. We want you to observe and obey the traffic lights!