Can Level Crossings Ever be Safe?
Recently we have been told about upgrades to the AOCL's in Scotland. This will be fine if they are used correctly and not abused, but can level crossings ever be safe? I well remember when Delny and Nigg were manned stations with level crossings the gates being broken on a few occasions.
I'd like to tell you about a level crossing (now closed). It was the entrance to Teaninich Industrial Estate, and this was late '70s or early '80s. I won't mention any names except to say I had no personal involvement in the incident.
This crossing had a history of incidents, possibly due to poor visibility and public misuse. As far as I can recall a telephone was connected to Alness for users to contact the signalman, but frequently people didn't bother to close the gates, especially if they were coming out again in a short time. The end result was sadly a fatality, and as the crossing was getting increasingly busier something had to be done. The solution that was brought up was that, as this was a Council crossing, they would build two houses and employ two crossing keepers.
The method of operating the crossing was, if a Down train was leaving Dingwall, the Alness signaller told the crossing attendant to "Stand by for a train leaving Dingwall." As soon as it had departed the crossing keeper was told and, as far as I remember, they waited four minutes, then closed the gates and cleared the signals. For Up direction trains the signaller instructed the crossing keeper to close the gates and on confirmation that this was done the train was allowed to depart from Alness. It all sounds pretty safe, doesn't it? Not so.
After Alness closed, control of the level crossing was passed to Invergordon signallers under the same arrangements. Now, as the North line as far as Invergordon was extremely busy with freight traffic, the permanent way trains left Inverness around 05:00 to run ahead of the other trains. Well, this particular morning the train left Inverness and I'll just say the driver knew where the handle was. He was accompanied by his second man, and also the traffic inspector (not the locomotive inspector) was doing a footplate run. The latter believed it was good to talk - a chatty man.
Well, as the train came round the corner the gates were still open to the road! Next thing, firewood everywhere: still think it's a safe crossing?
Now, who do we blame? The crossing keeper claimed not to have been told. The signaller claimed the crossing keeper was told. Was the train going too fast? The driver said the Distant signal was clear and also the rails were greasy.
The crossing keeper got the blame, a bit unfairly in my opinion, as the previous day the signal wire had been tensioned to get the signal to clear; the adjusters were for whoever pulled the signals. So during the night the wire contracted enough to raise the signal a bit, though it is doubtful if it would lift sufficiently to give a completely clear signal.
Anyway, whatever the cause, as long as the human element is involved the danger remains. On this occasion no-one was hurt, and the crossing keeper was dismissed.