United Kingdom: Union call for action misses the bigger picture on crossing elimination

16 May

Rail Union, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association is to call on the parliamentary Transport Select Committee to investigate Network Rail because of “needless level crossing tragedies. Such a call misses the point that in many cases level crossing issues are not something that a rail infrastructure provider alone can address. The owner of the highway or private right-of-way across the railway also have a real part to play. Also, level crossings are not exclusively found on Network Rail’s managed infrastructure and are also to be found on many heritage railways and on public transit systems.

The idea that the Transport Select Committee takes a look at level crossings is a good one. Let’s look at the issue in the round. The Law Commissions for Scotland and for England and Wales have – for several years – been looking at the case for legislative change concerning level crossings. It is important that their proposals are assessed and, hopefully, seen as a significant contribution to the debate going forward.

The progress made by Network Rail in reducing the number of private level crossings is a great programme as is the will to focus on eliminating footpath crossings where an alternative pedestrian route across the railway can be provided. Footpath closures don’t come cheap if a bridge has to be provided, particularly if it needs to be accessible to the mobility impaired. However, this is nothing when compared with the costs of grade-separating a highway intersection with the railway right of-way.

With the UK delivering “world-class” safety performance at level crossings, there is clearly scope to do more; and, to do this before the accident as was the case at both the Elsenham and Hucknall crossings cited by TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes. However, if it is in the national interest to go further and faster with a closure programme that reduces the number of level crossings on the public highway, then additional funding will be needed. In most cases, applying the so far as is reasonably practicable (SFAIRP) test, will not make the case for grade separation on safety grounds alone. Rather, risk reduction is one benefit that needs to sit alongside the value of time saved by eliminating the need for road traffic to wait at level crossings and the resultant traffic congestion that arises at some locations with a high traffic moment.

Spain has made real progress through a special fund to eliminate more than 1,900 public level crossings. There are clearly job creation opportunities associated with a significant programme of closing public level crossings whether by consolidation of traffic over a lesser number of level crossings where there are many in a short distance and grade-separation where there is a case. The TSSA would, in my mind, be better serving the rail industry and those who use level crossings by promoting government investment in a substantial public highway grade-separation and crossing consolidation programme.

Yes, hold Network Rail to account where it has failed or is failing to manage level crossing risk professionally by taking all steps that satisfy the SFAIRP test. But, also apply the same test in dealing with the other parties managing railway infrastructure on which there are level crossings. Equally hold the Office of Rail Regulation, as railway safety regulator in Great Britain, to account when it hasn’t been sufficiently pro-active in causing railway infrastructure managers to manage level crossing risk SFAIRP.

However, let’s be realistic and recognise that funding a programme to eliminate level crossings on the pubic highway will need funding especially as is the case in Spain. Therefore, before there is a breakthrough in this regard, it is the UK government that needs to be challenged to come up with the necessary additional funding for level crossing elimination as a job creation, risk reduction and improved road traffic flow programme. Over to you, Louise Ellman, chair of the Transport Select Committee?

2 Responses to “United Kingdom: Union call for action misses the bigger picture on crossing elimination”

  1. John Cartledge May 16, 2013 at 16:26 #

    Thanks, Aidan. By chance we were discussing LXs yesterday at PACTS rail safety working party, in the context of a presentation from Simon French on the key issues emerging from RAIB investigations, so I have circulated your comment to its members. Regards, JC.


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