Following recent news from France of a train colliding with a school bus at a level crossing, the safety of level crossings in France is again being questioned. This is an ongoing issue due to the 187 deaths resulting from such collisions in France between 2011 and 2016. In the UK, comparatively, incidents like these are rarely reported. But does this mean level crossing safety in the UK is better than in places such as France?
Incidents in the UK
It was only back in September that a similar debate on level crossing safety was seen in the UK, with journalists reporting on a near miss incident at Broad Oak level crossing. In this case, an approaching train almost collided with a road vehicle driving across the crossing. And this incident is neither isolated nor is it the worst case recorded in the UK.
Throughout the years between 2011 and 2016, a total of 449 train and road vehicle near-miss incidents were reported by Network Rail and, more significantly, 41 additional cases were reported by which trains went on to collide with road vehicles at level crossings. Unfortunately, this is not where issues with level crossings ends. There are regular incidents of near misses with non-vehicle users, and even multiple situations each year where a pedestrian is hit by a train. The question therefore becomes whether there is a reason why level crossing safety in the UK is not more publicly debated.
Level crossing risk
Despite the lack of publicity, there is a clear consensus within the industry and specifically among Network Rail on how to reduce the risk at level crossings. Simply put, they intend to ‘eliminate the crossing completely by closing it’. So, the people who own and manage these crossings, and are therefore the experts in the field, deem there to be such a high risk associated with the infrastructure that they believe they should not be in use. Network Rail have followed through with this ideology, with 1100 level crossings being closed since 2009. Those that cannot be closed, due to money or high usage etc. have been looked at differently and methods to reduce risk have been considered. This is done through regular risk assessments & operational risk in asset management on each level crossing, required to be done every 1¼ to 3¼ years based upon risk of the level crossing. This allows Network Rail to know where the higher risks are, and therefore where best to spend money to gain the best risk reduction. By doing this, network risk has improved significantly, with the overall level crossing risk across the whole of the UK now just 12.4 per cent of what it was in 2014.
Compare this with France, however, and the ideology that Network Rail have had for a while now is only just being seen, with no new creation of levels crossings only just being targeted. The SNCF, France’s equivalent to Network Rail, are now also aiming to eliminate existing level crossings and improve the equipment on those that cannot be closed. The delay in seeing this, however, could be the cause of why level crossing safety is such an issue in France, and the way Network Rail have dealt with the issue so far in the UK explains why the issue is not as public here. It cannot stop there, however, and even if the overall level crossing risk throughout the UK is low enough, there is a clear requirement for Network Rail’s procedure on regular risk assessments to be continued.