With over 6,000 level crossings in the UK, minimising the associated risk is a priority. Although level crossings are rarely part of new railway design, the existing assets contribute a significant level of risk to passengers and the public.

Whilst the most effective method of reducing level crossing risk is to abolish them completely, this is not always practical or possible. If crossings cannot be completely eliminated, there have to be effective systems in place to reduce risk.

Continuous improvement

In 2010, Network Rail commenced a level crossing risk reduction programme to improve safety by either closing or upgrading crossings, where appropriate, across the network.

Since that programme started, over 1,000 crossings have been closed and many have been improved or upgraded. Although level crossing fatalities are at their lowest in twenty years, fatalities, injuries and near misses do still occur.

Recently, an elderly pedestrian was struck and fatally injured by a train on a footpath level crossing in Suffolk. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) report concluded he was either unaware of the train at the time, or had misjudged the time needed to cross.

This particular crossing was a passive one with a skewed alignment, both of which were highlighted in RAIB’s recommendations – the investigation emphasised the potential dangers of a skewed crossing, and how risk management and investigation need to take into account the importance of demographic changes in society. For instance, the age and health of the pedestrian who died in Suffolk meant he fell in to the category of people considered by Network Rail’s guidance to be a ‘vulnerable user’. With the proportion of elderly people in our population increasing every year, this is a demographic change that needs regular assessment.

The frequency at which Network Rail assesses a level crossing is dependent on the level of risk the crossing poses. Generally, crossings are risk assessed at intervals of between one and three years, or if any significant changes are made. It is during this risk-assessment period that decisions are usually taken regarding closure and upgrading.

As well as closures at crossings, Network Rail has made many upgrades to safety including over 1,000 improvements of sighting, installed overlay barriers at 45 open crossings and repositioned over 250 crossing phones to safer places for users. In addition to these changes, there has been an increase in new technology being trialled and implemented across the UK to help reduce risk and increase safety of all users.

Technical solutions

Technology is moving forward swiftly. At the busiest crossings, using mobile enforcement vans manned by British Transport Police and funded by Network Rail is an option. These state-of-the-art camera vans use number plate recognition technology to catch offenders taking risks on crossings. The aim is that the presence of vans, which are clearly marked, will hopefully discourage people from misusing level crossings in the first place.

Similarly, British Transport Police and Network Rail are working together closely to implement a new system. The road flow signal system is a traffic enforcement device that improves public safety at crossings by identifying when vehicles fail to comply with stop signals and continue to cross after the red lights start flashing. This system has been installed in the White Hart Lane level crossing in Richmond, which is seen to be a particularly high risk crossing with Network Rail recording between 20 and 30 incidents of misuse each day.

Additionally, obstacle detection technology has been replacing manually operated barriers in recent years. These radars scan the crossing once the train is approaching, to confirm the crossing is clear, before sending a confirmation message to the signal to allow the train to proceed.

In some circumstances, a lower-height detection method called Lower LiDAR has been implemented where there is an increased risk of members of the public tripping and falling under the standard radar detection height. For example, the risk assessment may identify this is required where the crossing is used by many elderly or vulnerable users.

Investment in risk tools

As well as technology, Network Rail is investing in the development of its risk tools. RSSB research project T936 – Enhancing the accuracy and functionality of the All Level Crossing Risk Model (ALCRM) – was published on SPARK (www.sparkrail.org), RSSB’s knowledge sharing hub, in May.

The ALCRM, the industry’s foremost level crossing risk tool, was enhanced in light of suggestions for improvements from bodies such as the Office for Rail and Road. Each suggestion was subject to scrutiny and possible rejection. The predicted levels of risk now provide better granularity than previous versions of ALCRM, differentiating between important site-specific features such as whistle boards and power operated gate openers (POGO).

Successful application of the ALCRM update will lead to improved safety decision making to assist with the eventual reduction in the overall level of risk across Network Rail’s portfolio of level crossings. In addition, SORAT-LX, a relatively new tool, assesses the risk associated with a SPAD (signal passed at danger) into a level crossing scenario and was formulated in the RSSB research project T1007 – Assessing and reducing the risk at railway signals protecting level crossings.

Commenting on progress so far, RSSB director of system safety and risk George Bearfield said: “The industry has put a sustained focus on managing the risk from level crossings in recent years. This includes working together to do the right research and analysis to enable Network Rail and others to target action to where it will have the most impact.”

Suitable and sufficient risk assessment

With level crossings accounting for nearly half the train accidents in the UK, effective risk assessment is crucial in assuring the reduction of the numbers of fatalities and serious incidents. RSSB’s latest publication of its Safety Risk Model (SRMv8.1) allocates 11.21FWI (fatalities and weighted injuries) each year to all level crossing risk.

Network Rail’s current risk assessment process, the Suitable & Sufficient Level Crossing Risk Assessment (S&S LCRA), feeds into the GRIP 2 and 3 feasibility and option selection stages of the level crossing upgrade and renewal programme. It is also required when there are any changes to infrastructure, operations, demographics or local environment.

The focus of the S&S LCRA process is not to make the decision for the project but to equip stakeholders with the supporting information they need to make decisions on available options, which fall broadly in three categories:

  1. Closure and re-routing – Provides a low cost option but is often negated by the practicability of re-routing traffic elsewhere. While the risk at the individual crossing will be eliminated, the impact on surrounding crossings must be reviewed.
  2. Closure and bridge/underpass – This option represents the ‘ideal’, although it comes with a significant cost.
  3. Crossing upgrade – A review of the current level crossing solution is carried out with an impact analysis taken out on possible upgrade options. For example, if the existing level crossing is an AHB (Automatic Half Barrier), how would implementing a full barrier crossing improve the risk?

The S&S LCRA process comprises five stages. The key step is the Stakeholder Workshop at which the options identified above are reviewed and the decision taken on which solution fits each individual level crossing. The option of a level crossing upgrade is complicated and needs to take into account many factors including the use of the crossing, the user groups which use the crossing, the signalling arrangements, costs, barrier down times, possible misuse of the crossing, possible future changes in use and significant local hazards.

With so many complexities, the S&S LCRA is often completed by third-party risk experts who advise and guide stakeholders through the decision-making process. RSK Business Solutions is one such company and managing director Danny Bird provided a summary of the part the risk assessment plays in making sure the industry is taking the right decision on level crossing renewals: “Improvements with technology and level crossing design, together with a proactive risk assessment methodology, have resulted in huge improvements to the safety of passengers, staff and the public at level crossings.”