The future of level crossings and risk assessments

14 Apr 2021

Britain has more than 5,600 level crossings in the UK and there are many associated risks which must be carefully assessed and managed. Network Rail is committed to making railways a safer place and it is clear that through both proactive and reactive risk assessments that reductions in risk have been achieved by closures, upgrades such as lighting, cameras and audible warnings and technology such as automated full barrier crossings. 

The Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB)  Annual Level Crossing Summary acknowledges the significant reductions in risk that have been achieved, with over 1,100 level crossing closed in the previous 10 years, but reported that in 2019/20 there were:

  • two pedestrians who died after being struck by trains in accidents at level crossings

  • six train collisions with road vehicles at level crossings

  • increasing pedestrian near misses at passive crossing types

  • Increasing number of operating incidents resulting in users becoming trapped on or in a level crossing.

Despite improvements, level crossing risk is maintained or even increased by external factors, such as increased road/rail traffic, the changing population, congested areas of road, rail and footpaths and changes in public attitudes and expectations.

In order to continue to improve the safety, Network Rail has developed a  long-term 10 year strategy titled 'Enhancing Level Crossing Safety 2019 - 2029', with the safety vision being no accidents at level crossings on Britain’s main line network. The strategy focusses on four areas; Risk Management, Technology and Innovation, Competence Management and Education and Enforcement.    

Risk assessment

The railway industry uses a standardised method for assessing risk  which takes into account the location of the level crossing, the frequency of trains and users.  Since 2007, Network Rail has used the All Level Crossing Risk Model (ALCRM) to support its risk assessment of a level crossing; this is a model which assesses the individual risk, collective risk and potential operational costs (associated with incidents) at each crossing.  The model can track changes in the aggregate risk at level crossings. It looks at the location, the type of crossing, the number of tracks, environmental features, user census, i.e. users per day, the types of users, the number of trains, sighting distance and traverse times. In 2017, the RSSB completed research to update the algorithms to incorporate into the risk model, to make the risk assessments more accurate.

Looking forward, a new Level Crossing Decision Tool will bring risk, asset and safety data into one single place to help assess risk, subsequent management and decision making. 

Consultation on new ORR guidance on principles of level crossing safety

To further enhance the industry’s strategy to improve safety, on 20 January 2021 the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) published a consultation on draft guidance on level crossing safety to support the rail industry, traffic authorities and local authorities in their decisions about level crossing safety.

Draft proposals in the new ‘Principles for managing level crossing safety’ are designed to advance risk assessments at level crossings and provide practical advice on how to recognise and manage risks that affect the safety of people who use them. There are nine principles based on what is ’safe for the user’”, which includes identifying user behaviours to ensure they can cross quickly and safely. There are also nine principles on ensuring a ‘safe railway’ which includes ensuring the level crossing is clear of users before a train arrives and to avoid vehicles becoming stranded on the railway and trespass. Then there are five principles to ensure a ‘safe highway’.

The proposals aim to give industry greater confidence in putting forward ground-breaking designs to reduce risks, with a focus on how the level crossings are actually used by the user, railway and highway.  The importance of collaboration is at the forefront of managing the risk, so the infrastructure manager, traffic authority, local authority, train operating companies and British Transport police are encouraged to share information and intelligence, so informed decisions can be taken. It also allows a cost-benefit analysis to be utilised with a focus on continuous improvement in level crossing risk management.

The ORR is currently reviewing responses to the consultation, but the railway industry has welcomed the guidance, which supports improvements which were already in progress.

Education and enforcement

Network Rail has always identified that education on level crossing safety is key and this remains one of the four key focus areas in its strategy.

Despite all the work to date to reduce risks, it appears there are still many examples of the incorrect or deliberate misuse of level crossings.  You only have to search on YouTube to find a full library of videos showing near misses with oncoming trains as a result of vehicles driving around or through level crossing barriers that are coming down and clearly designed to protect oncoming road traffic. Unbelievably, there are also shocking videos of pedestrians running round or jumping over level crossing barriers and even laying on the track as a dare; disregarding their own safety  and that of those people that are on the train itself. It is baffling how many people are willing to risk their own life’s just to save a few minutes, perhaps not even aware their antics will be on CCTV and may appear on social media.

Social media risk takers

In January 2021 the following TikTok photo appeared with a car parked in the middle of the tracks with a tripod set up nearby. A caption challenged viewers: "Would you take the risk to get the shot no-one else would?"

The increased use of social media in recent years highlights that educating the public and enforcement remain an integral part of managing and reducing safety at level crossings.

There have been a number of media campaigns to highlight the risk to drivers and pedestrians and these will continue, as necessary to reinforce the education of users and dissuade any further dangerously risky TikTok videos.

Wider BTP support

For enforcement of the rules, Network Rail has used a fleet of British Transport Police (BTP) staffed mobile safety vehicles, equipped with automatic number plate recognition cameras. In addition, since 2015 Network Rail has installed red light safety equipment at 33 automatic level crossings. These red light enforcement cameras captures evidence of level crossing misuse and has reduced the risk of deliberate misuse by 59% on average and by up to 90% at certain locations. Drivers caught misusing a crossing are offered either potential prosecution leading to a fine and points on their licence or the opportunity to undertake a Driver Retraining Course.  If the misuse is significant the BTP can prosecute for a wilful act or omission, or a rash or negligent act or omission which is punishable with up to five year’s imprisonment pursuant to Section 153 and 154 of Railway Act 1989.

It is hoped, as a result of this continuous improvement and enhanced level of risk assessment, the safety of level crossings should only improve in the future, but will this stop social media users who want to increase their followers? Is misuse really worth the risk for an extra ‘Like? It remains to be seen if any risk assessment can take into account this modern phenomenon for social media fame.

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Disclaimer: This document does not present a complete or comprehensive statement of the law, nor does it constitute legal advice. It is intended only to highlight issues that may be of interest to clients of BLM. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in any particular case.

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Sharon MacArthur-Powell

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