1 Danger signs. Courtesy of Phil Marsh

Headphones or headless?

Published 21st May 2013

Network Rail’s Walk to School Week seeks to increase level crossing awareness

The question about what has happened to common sense is often asked by people who are often of a certain age. The same could be asked about why there are accidents at level crossings which regrettably cost lives at worst or injuries at best.

Network Rail (NR) is running, as part of a safety awareness campaign for young people, ‘Rail Life’, which supports national Walk to School Week, between May 20 and 24. NR is supporting this initiative as part of their quest to increase public awareness of how to use level crossings and the dangers of ignoring the clearly displayed instructions.

They have created a new website called ‘The Rail Life’ as part of this latest safety initiative and it was created by and aimed at younger people aged between 12 and 17 year-olds. Viewing should be mandatory as the content includes videos, advice and general rail-related safety information.

Rail Life

NR says that the safety of people on and around the railway is their priority and as railways get busier and faster trains operate one answer is education of those who might not realise railways are dangerous places, especially for young people.

The Rail Life programme provides teachers and other professionals working with young people and parents with resources to grab young people’s attention and these resources have been developed in conjunction with teachers to link in with educational curriculum areas and deliver Ofsted teaching requirements.

Consequences of misuse

Sadly a cyclist was killed on a level crossing on May 2 last year at Kings Mill near Mansfield and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) has issued their conclusions into the death. The cyclist was using a footpath which crossed a railway line via a crossing, and was struck and fatally injured by a train travelling at 56 mph.

Headphone dangers

They concluded that the direct cause of death was when the cyclist rode over the crossing into the path of the train. He was unaware of the train’s approach, probably because he had not looked towards it after passing through the gate protecting the crossing and he was wearing earphones, which probably prevented him from hearing warnings sounded by the train’s horn.

RAIB made one recommendation which was not related to the cause of the accident, but arises from the history of the crossing involved and was directed at the Health & Safety Executive and the Office of Rail Regulation. This was intended to improve the awareness of local authorities, who may be involved in planning issues that directly affect the usage of level crossings.

RAIB also said that there is also a key learning point for NR other crossing operators, relating to the importance of considering all possible measures to reduce risk at crossings, not just those that involve major changes.

But where does this leave personal responsibility? The crossing in question was protected by bridleway gates 1.5 metres wide, designed to be self-closing, and fitted with extended handles so that they could be operated by horse riders. Instruction signs were also erected which instructed users if in charge of animals, to phone the crossing operator (a standard sign at bridleway crossings), and advising that cyclists should dismount.

These signs and gates located on both sides are approximately three metres from the nearest rail and were correctly placed to allow users to decide if the line was safe to cross.

The Report says:

The immediate cause of the accident was that the cyclist rode over the level crossing into the path of the approaching train. It also says that the eye-witness evidence confirmed that the cyclist opened the gate, and did not dismount while the CCTV from the train cab shows him riding over the crossing as the train approached.

The witnesses came up to the cyclist and one of them held the gate as he cycled through. The train CCTV shows him cycling onto the crossing, standing up on the pedals to move away quickly from a standing start, but then sitting down in the saddle as he crosses the lines.

The riders actions, as described by the eye-witnesses and shown on the train’s CCTV, indicate that he was unaware of the approaching train. The reason for this was probably a combination of some or all of the following factors:

He was probably wearing earphones which may have prevented him from hearing the train. As the rider passed the eye-witnesses and turned towards the crossing, he appeared to use his left hand to remove or replace something in his ear.

After the accident, a pair of earphones, with music playing ‘loudly’ (witness description) was found on his body. The rider, the report says, is reported to have been in the habit of only using one earphone when he was cycling around roads and railways, but he did not appear to react to the sound of the train’s horn, even when it was close to him.

Previous incidents

RAIB has investigated two other accidents where people died who may have been wearing earphones have been struck by trains or trams, at Morden Hall Park crossing on the London Tramlink system (Croydon) and at Johnson’s footpath crossing, near Bishop’s Stortford on 28 January 2012. RAIB has also carried out preliminary examinations of several non-fatal accidents in which wearing of earphones has been a factor in the accidents.

Written by Phil Marsh

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