Published: 18th May 2014
Railway rule number 1 is that safety of the line is paramount and with this safety of road users is also vital on level crossings. It is also a fundamental fact that train drivers do not deliberately choose to go through red signals whereas road users do make that choice and create risk when they jump lights or overtake, crossing double white lines for example.
So when a railway safety system fails such as at a level crossing, what happens? Signals revert to a fail-safe position and all rail traffic stops. This can also mean the road becomes blocked and all traffic movement ceases as well. This is a deliberate policy to protect everyone.
So, when a level crossing protection system fails, trains are stopped and cautioned over the crossing by a hand-signaller working in conjunction with someone controlling road traffic - thus maintaining safety and keeping railways and roads moving safely.
But at Hawkesbury Crossing in the last week, it appears there have been many failures of 20 minutes or so plus another where traffic was stopped for over six hours. This is clearly unacceptable as traffic ground to a halt and the Transport police were called to the scene. This was presumably to protect road users from crossing the line potentially placing themselves in danger.
Accidents happen when a random set of circumstances take place. A level crossing fails and delays happen. The trains are protected by systems which rail staff work with and obey.
Road users think they can, and do flout red traffic lights and warning signs, we’ve all seen this. This creates risk and when these are combined, you create a dangerous situation that is no fault of the railways. This is why there are thousands of fatalities and serious injuries on the roads annually and the railways are recognised as being very safe which is why it is big news if an accident occurs.
So at Hawksbury, given the number of failures, for which Network Rail has apologised, they should also be investigating the root cause of the problem and rectify it. But if road users thing risking death or injury is worth saving a few minutes, that’s their risk assessment, not the railways and the railways suffer from these actions.
The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) has just published its report on a near miss at Llandovery on the central Wales line last June where a random set of circumstances took place to create a risk. These were:
An early morning train was heading north and stopped at Llandovery station. The level crossing warning system is operated by a control panel on the platform and the train Guard has to activate this when passengers are safely on the train.
This control panel activates level crossing warnings and protects the railway by lowering barriers across the road stopping traffic. When the warnings are in operation, the train driver has a white light displayed to him indicating it is safe for the train to proceed over the crossing.
The Guard forgot for some reason to activate the crossing protection system and the driver didn’t make sure the white light signal was illuminated and set off to go over the level crossing. A van driver assumed the line was clear as there were no warnings being displayed. The result was a near miss and nobody was physically hurt, but a few people were shaken by the incident.
This was caused by the normal procedures not being carried out, not once but twice which shows what lapses of concentration can create. But RAIB also highlighted that Network Rail had carried out a signalling upgrade in the area between 2007 and 2010 when they could have integrated the level crossing safety arrangements into the new signalling system.
The RAIB identified that an opportunity to integrate the operation of Llandovery level crossing into the signalling arrangements (which would have prevented this incident) was missed when signalling works were planned and commissioned at Llandovery between 2007 and 2010. The RAIB also identified that there was no formalised method of work for train operations at Llandovery.
The CCTV at a garage next to the crossing proved that the Guard did not activate the crossing warning system and therefore the flashing white light was not activated now were the four half barriers lowered across the road. A member of the garage staff rang the police and Network Rail to say there had been a near miss and the investigation commenced.
The traincrew were experienced in using this crossing but had been up early for a 4am start and several other minor actions had also taken place against the operating rules. These are all thought to have combined to create the unsafe situation.