On the back foot. What does it mean? Being on the defensive, unable to make progress. It’s an appropriately topical cricket expression particularly as the 2013 Ashes test series has just started and England is, of course, on the back foot in their first innings. Whether or not they will be able to make real progress is something we will all know by the time this month’s edition of The Rail Engineer is printed, but at the moment the home side’s 185 for 6 does rather look like back foot territory.

But abruptly turning the narrative to the railway industry, it’s probably true to say that all railway infrastructure owners have been on the back foot when it comes to level crossing safety. Whatever sound progress is made to improve matters, there’s always a ghastly tragedy to deflect attention to the immediate rather than to the strategic. And accidents at level crossings are nearly always horrible and involve heartrending human losses. As with track safety issues, trains rarely injure people, they kill them – and news coverage is always bad.

700 crossing closures

Eighteen months ago, when we last interviewed Martin Gallagher, Network Rail’s head of level crossings, there were signs of progress but the industry was still on the defensive, still fending off awful publicity whilst still trying to work out how to make a real and lasting change for the better.

So has there been a change? Well, 18 months is a long time and it is true to say that the groundwork is now complete and there’s something to see at last. But in a way perhaps there is less to see for there are fewer level crossings out there to cause the grief.

Martin’s take on closing 700 crossings is: “If you said to any sensible railway person three years ago that Network Rail was going to close 10% of its level crossings in the next three years, they would have said that it would cost hundreds of millions of pounds. We’ve managed to close 10% of crossings for £20million or so, and that gives a huge improvement in performance with a reduction in operational costs and, of course, risk.”

£130 million funding package

But going right back to the beginning of the story – long before the aggressive closure programme started and long before the introduction of new and pragmatic technical solutions – we need to look at how the current regime of level crossing risk management came into existence.

It took the carrot of a 25% reduction of risk at level crossings by the end of March 2014 to secure a £130 million package of funding from the Network Rail board. The target was ambitious and there were some in the industry who doubted whether it could be achieved. Well, with no apology, here is a spoiler. At the end of period 3 this year, the reduction was 24.1% so, by the target date, it is likely that a figure of 30% will be achieved.

Level crossing managers

Again, going back to the beginning and with the funding secured, there was a need to look critically at how these items of infrastructure should be managed. They have always been tricky. They have always been the point at which a whole range of interests coincide. They are installed by specialists on the civil engineering side, they sit in the permanent way, they may be controlled with signalling equipment. They are considered as part of the operational railway, travelled over by trains driven by drivers but, worst of all, used by the general public – many of whom work to no rules, regulations or standards and who generally come off worst when hit by a train at speed. There are parties that want crossings to stay and those who want to see them abolished. Pulling together all these interests and disinterests needed a single point of contact with influence in every department and faction in and out of the railway industry.

So, that’s what the funding has provided – level crossing managers who are responsible for all aspects of a crossing’s management.

It’s a job with none of the other sideshow responsibilities that have blighted how level crossings have been looked after in the past.

“We’ve developed and implemented a four week training course so all these 100 plus people have been trained to understand our legal responsibilities, the concept and the practice of inspection, of risk management, of stakeholder management and of project management,” Martin explained.

7. Still image of upturned car from TV advert [online]

Data cleansing

“We also set up projects to cleanse all of our data. There were many different systems in Network Rail and very few of them were integrated. So if you wanted to find out information on a particular crossing you normally had to go into a number of different systems and you found that the level crossing information was different everywhere you looked!”

By going right back to the original historical documentation, new ‘clean’ databases have been created. This has taken more than two years, but has resulted in over 4,000 anomalies being eliminated.

This, along with the migration to paperless mobile technology, is the type of backup being given to these level crossing managers. By next month, all the crossing information and supporting documentation will be accessible through one integrated portal.

So, these are the foundations. But what actual measures are appearing on site? This is where there has been a structured approach to risk reduction. It’s always tempting to rush around spending cash to patch up the latest crisis. In fact, that is pretty easy to do but, in the end, all the old systemic problems would still keep reappearing.

Technical solutions

It’s vital to get reliable information on who uses a crossing and how often it is used.

‘Smart’ cameras are being installed at 500, mainly user- worked, crossings to determine real risk areas. In the past some of this information has been gathered from private users, but often the information proved unreliable.

Many of these crossings appear to be rarely used, but in reality the opposite is often the case where they give access to crop harvesting. In these cases a level of control for that short period of time at least can lower risk considerably.

Several systems of train detection are being trialled at the moment including that provided by Wavetrain Systems Ltd. There are other systems, all of similar cost and all giving about a 75% cost reduction on traditional systems. Some of them are axle counter based, others use radar. They will enable protection to be put in at the huge number of unprotected crossings. There has been no business case to spend £250,000 each on adding barriers to a load of lightly used footpath crossing, but there is a business case to spend 10% of that at the same locations to provide something that will tell a user to be aware of an approaching train. These are not signalling systems, but information systems that are far, far better than having nothing at all.

Barriers on open crossings have been installed at many locations and new ones are going in every week. This is a short term solution as it’s an area that has been heavily scrutinised because open level crossings make up something like 2% of the total crossing population but account for 30% of accidents. However, one of these barrier installations can be installed at something like 20% of the cost of a full upgrade to a half barrier crossing.

Red light enforcement cameras have real muscle as these are a Home Office type-approved system. This means that the camera data can be used as a primary source of evidence. There is no need for any corroboration from signals, staff, train drivers or members of the public. There are trials going on at the moment at six locations and by March of next year 300 will have been installed. With a fully automated process it means that every time a vehicle driver runs a red light or drives round or under a barrier, there will be virtually no human intervention before the letter drops through the post box announcing three or six penalty points and a fine.

Barrier inhibition system

In 2010 a signaller, distracted by phone calls, raised the barriers of the level crossing at Moreton- on-Lugg on the Shrewsbury to Hereford line as a train was approaching. The result was a fatal accident as cars were struck as they passed over the crossing. Over the years, many controlled crossings in the UK have been fitted with devices that detect a train in section and which prevent barriers being lifted. But some, mainly in the West of England for a variety of historical reasons, were not – Moreton being one of them.

Despite the accident, full retrospective fitting of traditional approach locking is extremely expensive and very difficult to justify. However, Network Rail’s in-house engineers have designed a solution that overlays the existing signalling and provides a generic barrier inhibition system. It incorporates a timer and a train-activated treadle that provides critical thinking time to the signaller to prevent impulsive decisions being made. About fifty locations have now been fitted.

On the front foot at last

As Martin acknowledges, many of the level crossing initiatives have been as a result of accidents, being on the defensive, being on the back foot. But for once there
is work going on that is driven by the wish to get ahead of the game. Working with the RSSB, Network Rail is delving into human factors – to start designing level crossings in the way that would be more intuitive to pedestrians and vehicle drivers by looking at the layouts and approaches to level crossings.

“We’ve been looking at new lights, new signage, new types of decking, new coloured danger zones – testing all of these different things to see what actually creates better awareness to somebody as they approach and use a level crossing. For the first time in a couple of years that I can remember, we have really been on the front foot in terms of innovation and not just reacting to something on the back of a recommendation.

“Even the Rail Regulator who, 18 months ago, had a very different view from its recent press release, has said that excellent progress had been made!”