Published: 22nd January 2015
Network Rail is working on a series of route strategies for all the UK rail network. This is being carried out to try and establish the future needs for a modern railway to serve the next generation’s transport needs.
The common demand is for faster trains, reduced journey times and a safer railway. NR is not by any means a perfect monopoly supplier of the UK main line railway infrastructure and as a monopoly is subject to stringent regulation. This is carried out by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) who has legal enforcement and funding powers concerning our railways.
The railways are funded in five year slots known as Control Periods (CP) and we are currently in CP5 which started in April 2014. Part of the funding package agreed between NR and ORR for CP5 was a level crossing closure fund of around £100 million.
Why was this allocation made? Because level crossings are the most dangerous part of the network as trains and road users interface-not being separated by a fence. Why are there level crossings and footpath crossings? These are because these paths or roads existed before railways were built and the railways had to seek legal powers to construct their lines, mainly carried out in Victorian times.
Therefore, these right of ways are enshrined in legal terms in the UK rail network and as railways had to make such crossings safe, are responsible for their continued safe use. Reasonable precautions are warning signs, flashing lights, sirens, painted markings on the road and barriers across the line when a train is imminent.
The signalling system is interlinked with level crossings and many, but not all foot or farm user crossings. For example, there are minimum warning times detailed in the railway safety management systems and these are calculated on how fast trains are likely to traverse a crossing. Signalling equipment is put on the track in advance of a crossing and when a train passes over it, the warning process commences, with lights flashing, a warning siren and then the gates close.
Regrettably, a small minority of crossing users continue to abuse the system ignoring the safety systems and dodge trains. Sometimes this is done through a combination of ignorance and safety systems which could be improved a little. The tragedy at Elsenham where two girls were killed on the crossing a few years ago is a sad case in point.
Rail.co.uk has been contacted by a reader asking why “Network Rail is proposing to close many level crossings in Suffolk. So far the publicity appears only to be concerned about isolating and dividing communities through closure of road crossings (bad enough in itself) . I have seen no reference to the devastating effect many of these closures would have on public footpaths and rights of way, many of them hundreds of years old, nowhere near a road and certainly predating the railways.
The crossing are being looked at because of the proposed 110mph line upgrade to be carried out in the next 10 years or so if the economic case can be made.
And this is the point, the crossings will be replaced by a bridge or subway, they will simply not be closed and crossing users made to take a detour of several miles as was intimated on the Radio 5 breakfast show on January 22. The crossings have legal protection but because of a minority of people who misuse them, the rest of us have to deal with the consequences of the public and political demand for a safe railway – which it is.
The faster trains demanded by politicians and passengers mean that warning systems need to be adjusted and signalling altered, and this can cost millions to ensure continued safety. So it will often be a better option to close crossings but then those who live adjacent to these often object to closures and the construction of a bridge and bits of land being subject to compulsory purchase. So whatever the rail industry does, it will generally incur the wrath of one set of protagonists with the attendant publicity.
Farm crossings are often places where accidents occur because users do not close the gates or the signalling centre to see if it is safe to cross with a slow moving tractor and trailer for example. This abuse even happens on preserved railways as well where trains run at a maximum speed of 25mph.
This is why if there is an incident, it becomes headline news. And if it is misuse of a crossing, think of the train driver who is first in line in every aspect, and the passengers who may be injured in a derailment.
There is a competing demand for safety, faster trains, less taxpayer subsidy and less inconvenience to road users. This is why for example, the East West Rail project has been delayed by a year or so as there are over 100 crossings to be closed or issues resolved. The Bicester Town crossing for example is a busy road and cannot be closed but the frequent train service will cause serious congestion in the area if the barriers are closed every five minutes.
The rail.co.uk reader asks what is Network Rail planning to do about these rights of way? Extinguish all of them? Apply for deviations? - (not realistic for footpaths as the deviations would often have to be of several miles.) Install footbridges or tunnels? Or has no one thought this through at all?
The answer is that NR will be thinking in minute detail about all these issues and that those affected should look out for consultation notices and take part in them. NR is doing its best in difficult circumstances and are acting under Government instructions as they have been a Government department since September last year.
To view official information concerning accidents at crossings visit the Office of Rail Regulation, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch and the Network Rail websites. These will amply demonstrate the competing pressures on all three organisations brought about by the tragic deaths and injuries to those who misuse them.