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Level crossings – removing barriers to safety and raising standards

Posted: 10/11/2016


Network Rail’s duty of care to pedestrians and road users varies across the country and from level crossing to level crossing.

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has set out a guide for managers, designers and operators of level crossings aligned to developments in industry standards and recommendations from the Rail Accident and Investigation Branch. While the ORR expects level crossing risks to be controlled to the appropriate degree, its guidelines are not statutory or binding in any way. They do not apply to level crossings or accidents with trams which have their own guidelines. 

Due to the number of categories of level crossing, there can be many variables at play in order to determine what level of safety precautions should be installed. The most secure level crossings, both in terms of road users and also trains, are gated crossings operated by railway staff in very busy locations. Here it is not possible for trains to clear the signals unless the road is fully closed by the gates and gates cannot be opened unless the signals are at stop and the crossing is free from approaching trains.

In total there are ten different categories of level crossing, all the way from gated crossings operated by railway staff down to open crossings, user worked crossings, footpath and bridleway crossings and foot crossings at stations. For user worked crossings where road users and pedestrians are required to open the gates themselves, the speed of trains should not exceed 100mph, the crossing should only be used for private roads and there should not normally be more than two lines over the crossing. Foot crossings at stations should only be considered for lightly used stations where line speed does not exceed 100mph and no alternative arrangements are available. For open crossings trains must not exceed 10mph.

The level crossing operator needs to take into account the number of vehicles using the crossing on a daily basis, the type of vehicles, the number of pedestrians, the potential age of pedestrians, the time it is likely to take to walk across the crossing, the visibility of oncoming trains if, for example there is a bend in the track, the speed of trains and the frequency of trains as well as the number of lines to be crossed. Whilst not quite endless, the list of variables to be taken into consideration is long.

Consequently, the task for Network Rail is not insignificant. It must be aware of developing demographic changes that impact on the usage of all its crossings to ensure the correct type is selected and suitable warnings and safety measures are in place so that it discharges its duty of care to the public.

Recently, Network Rail was fined £4 million after the death of Olive McFarland, an actress, when it was found, amongst other failings, that it had failed to install audible warning devices despite its own recommendations to do so. The Health and Safety Executive was critical of Network Rail for failing to take into account the time it took for pedestrians, especially elderly pedestrians, to walk over the crossing where trains were travelling at up to 100mph. It was only following Ms McFarland’s death that Network Rail imposed a speed limit.

While there are many level crossings to monitor all over the country and changing local conditions can make the task difficult, accidents rarely result in minor injuries and are frequently fatal. At Penningtons Manches, we act for a number of clients injured in railway accidents and level crossings, helping them obtain funding and making provision for therapy, long term psychological care and financial support as well as gaining compensation for families who have lost loved ones in a fatal accident.


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