by Phil Marsh

Rail Regulator announces £99 million pound fund to close 500 Level Crossings

Published: 14th November 2013

Should the railways pay for road users’ misuse of level crossings?

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has announced that it has reached a final settlement for the next five year railway funding period known as Control Period 5 (CP5) which commences in April 2014.

The 959 page document published by ORR has detailed what Network Rail (NR) has to deliver in this five year period for guaranteed funding. The Level Crossing announcement is just part of this massive document and NR has to deliver a plan to maximise the reduction in risks of accidents at level crossings.

It has been allocated £99million to achieve this reduction made up of £67million from the Department for Transport (DfT) plus £32m of further funding including £10million from the Scottish Assembly.

NR has a very serious legal obligation under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to maintain and, where reasonably practicable, to improve health and safety on the rail network.

The Determination is the result of several iterations that have been underway for a couple of years and in the draft determination, ORR said they were setting a new output measure for level crossings. This would require NR to propose and deliver a plan in CP5 to maximise the reduction in risk of accidents at level crossings – irrespective of who was to blame. NR proposed a further higher reduction in risk so long as extra funding was provided over and above the DfT’s £67million.

ORR allocated an extra £32million to NR to deliver this plan to achieve the maximum possible reduction in risk of accidents at level crossings. NR, using recent experience thinks it can deliver a 25% reduction in risk for the £99million over and above its day to day responsibilities.

First level crossing asset policy

NR has produced its first ever level crossing asset policy which looks at all crossings as a system rather than individually. This policy proposes to reduce the safety risk that level crossings pose to the rail network while maintaining or improving their condition and capability.

This policy also sets out NR’s plans for reducing level crossing risk and associated closure plans and part of this is the model developed to assess the risk reduction that can be achieved by a range of actions. Crossings are scheduled to be closed as follows:

Financial year 2014/5 = 58 closures

2015/6 = 95

2016/7 = 137

2017/8 = 124

2018/9 = 85 making the total to be closed 499.

Level crossing renewals and maintenance will be subject to greater coordination with the introduction of level crossing managers to oversee activities at their designated crossings.

Historically signalling renewals have ignored level crossings in the resignalled area missing opportunities to make safer crossings as part of a larger scheme but now NR intends to improve on this in CP5.

There are still many manually operated crossings and these will be modified to include obstacle detection operation in addition to other safety considerations. This is all hoped to reduce the risk of accidents at level crossings by 8%.

Whose accident?

The public behaviour risk at level crossings is measured and we have all seen film clips of near misses as cyclists, motorists and pedestrians ignore warning lights and sirens.

In 2011-2012, such behaviour was measured at an all-time low, reflecting ‘education’ and safety work by NR and the industry, but the risk still increased by 7% in 2012-2013. Level crossings still present nearly half of the potential catastrophic train accident risk, if injuries to passengers in road vehicles are included.

Perhaps the public has become used to being protected from themselves and are no longer able to judge risk if and when it presents itself! And when crossings are proposed for closure, there are often objections from users as they will have to use a bridge or subway or trees may need to be felled and some land used to construct a bridge.

The UK rail safety record stands up well to any European railway network but ORR’s determination reflects the recent increases in passenger risk (including public risk) from infrastructure failures, the continuing risks associated with level crossings despite them being road and not rail users.

What’s the risk at level crossings

The 6,500 level crossings managed by NR account for 50% of catastrophic train risk and the safe design, management and operation of level crossings can reduce the risks as well as having a positive effect on user behaviour thus reducing the number of fatal and serious incidents.

NR made a commitment in March 2012, following some high profile level crossing accidents to reduce the risk of accidents at level crossings by 50% by 2019. This would be achieved by closing crossings and to date is on target to have reduced risk by 26% by March 2013.

Some of this reduction is due to the closure of 30 high risk crossings, the installation of 200 red light-enforcement cameras and replacing train whistle boards with train detection equipment at 300 high risk locations.

So NR will carry out routine risk assessments and will do whatever they can to protect road users from themselves so benefitting users and passengers on the railway alike.

ORR and NR studiously avoid blaming road users for their indiscretions as they would, but next time you are delayed on a train by a level crossing incident, the overwhelming chances are that it is not the railway’s fault, but a societal one or just a road user in a hurry.

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