Obstacle Detection (OD) crossings, which use radar to confirm a crossing is clear before clearing the protecting signals, are now fully approved with many installations completed and further ones planned. One of the first installations was at Four Lane Ends, due east of Burscough Bridge on the Wigan to Southport route. The commissioning of the OD crossing in May 2013 removed an unsafe crossing from the network.
Rail operators have explicit legal duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to manage the risks arising from level crossings on their network. Any change or modification to the method of operation of a level crossing must only be done after a suitable and sufficient risk assessment has been undertaken to make sure that the risks have been reduced to as low as reasonably practical.
This has not always been the case and sometimes decisions have been taken with respect to the operation of a level crossing which, whilst appearing to be the right thing to do, actually imports additional risk. Such was the situation at Four Lane Ends.
The crossing was originally protected with manually operated gates and a full time gate attendant based in the adjacent house. In the early 1970s, the crossing was converted to a User Worked Crossing equipped with Miniature Warning Lights (UWC – MWL) and the house sold. This type of crossing was normally provided on private roads with limited usage and it was unusual for one to be provided on a public highway.
Hydraulic ‘pump up’ barriers were provided. These required the road user to pump up the barriers by using a lever, provided the lights were green, and then lower them having passed over the crossing. The arrangements were authorised in a level crossing order, made under the British Transport Commission Act 1957, and issued by the Railway Inspectorate on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport.
The MWL’s were operated automatically by approaching trains, displaying a red light when a train was detected approaching the crossing and a green light when it was permitted to cross the railway. The line speed is 70 mph. As its name suggests, four local roads converge on to Four Lane Ends Crossing, two from each side of the railway – plus there is a fifth driveway to access cottages.
In 1989, following several incidents with the barriers being left up by users, the level of protection was supplemented by the addition of a crossing keeper located in a caravan to operate the hydraulic pump. Unfortunately, as well as increasing operating costs, this change had the effect of increasing use by motor traffic as the crossing became more convenient to use.
The addition of crossing staff made the crossing’s status anomalous and by 1994 there was no provision in Railway Group or Company Standards for a UWC operated as a Manual Controlled Barrier (MCB). It did not have the benefit of safeguards that would have been provided for a compliant MCB, such as protecting signals or ‘approach locking’ via track circuits to prevent the barriers being mistakenly operated when a train was approaching. The crossing was designed for use by nominated users who would take responsibility for their own safe crossing and for their authorised visitors. The rail network operator now took over that responsibility, but without providing the appointed member of staff with the right tools for the job.
A new cabin
There were various attempts to renew the crossing with an Automatic Half Barrier (AHB) crossing. However such an installation was an expensive investment which got overtaken by more pressing schemes – the road layout would have required house demolition and extensive road modifications. The only enhancement that took place in the mid-1990s, was a more substantial crossing operator’s cabin with welfare and toilet facilities, to replace the temporary caravan.
Over time the crossing got busier due to nearby market garden businesses being established, the introduction of satnav promoting use as a short cut, a doubling of the train service from hourly to half hourly, and a nearby Sunday car-boot market. None of these changes were properly assessed for the increase in risk. Apart from the train service change, they occurred gradually over a period of time.
Because the barriers were operated whenever a vehicle approached, the crossing was required to be manned 24/7 (which even included Christmas Day when the network was shut). The crossing operators had to pump the handle to open the crossing in all weathers. They were walking many miles a day, receiving complaints from users, as well as making mistakes and operating the barrier when trains were approaching.
In 2006, the manually pumped barriers were provided with an electric pump. This was operated by a switch located in the crossing keeper’s cabin, with a supplementary one close to the north-side barrier machine. A mirror was provided so that the crossing keeper could see the indication of the miniature stop lights from inside the cabin. The new crossing equipment was authorised by a level crossing order issued by HM Railway Inspectorate and came into force on 8 January 2006. However the change in risk profile had not been adequately assessed.
The change improved the working environment for the operator, but making it easier to raise the barrier actually increased the safety risk. If the light changed to red whilst users were crossing, the operator had approximately 45 seconds to lower the barriers before the arrival of the train. Because they were not by the crossing, it was not possible to use hand signals to halt the traffic. There was no interlocking between the barrier controls and the signalling system, and there was still no approach locking provided. The crossing was used by over 200 vehicles per day, increasing to around three times this number on certain Sundays because of the car-boot market. Unsurprisingly, there were a number of reported incidents of trains traversing the crossing with the barriers raised.
In 2009 Network Rail sponsor Andy Scott became aware of Four Lane Ends when investigating the background to closure of nearby Shaws UWC. A footplate ride reinforced Andy’s concerns. During the journey, the train passed over the crossing with the barriers up and that was treated as a normal event by the local staff and public.
Finally, in 2010, a number of things coincided to provide a solution. Firstly, OD became an approved method of operating a crossing. Secondly, Network Rail improved its focus on level crossing safety and properly assessed the risk of each level crossing, and it put aside a dedicated budget within the control period to improve the safety functionality of signalling assets. Both the asset engineer and route director agreed a solution was required, and a key decision was to appoint Andy Scott as the commercial sponsor to properly develop the scheme, drive it forward, consult all stakeholders and obtain funding.
Andy consulted with colleagues, learnt of the long standing problems and set out to solve them. A survey was undertaken to establish usage of the crossing. About half was through traffic avoiding congestion in Burscough Bridge and half was local, with some using the crossing frequently during the day. A significant number of HGVs were serving a local farm to take turf to Liverpool.
When doing any work at a crossing, closure is always the first thing to consider. A consultation letter was sent to all nearby residents and local councillors, advising that closure or automation of the crossing was being investigated. Responses received were followed up by personal visits. It became apparent that those living south were unconcerned by closure or change but for those to the north the crossing was essential. In particular, HGVs could not access the farms by any other route due to either 3T weight restrictions or acute bends. A number of people thought that removal of the crossing keeper by automation would make it less safe, such was the lack of understanding of the situation.
A bridge would have had a significant environmental impact on the rich farmland, as would an alternative road route that was investigated. One solution was MCB with CCTV but this would have caused light pollution in a generally dark at night area. It may also have required additional manning in the controlling signal box, due to the already high level of crossing supervision.
The emerging OD technology offered a solution, providing greater levels of protection than CCTV but without lighting requirements. Both crossing solutions would need the area to have additional signalling, to include work on adjacent crossing controls, new line side power systems, track circuits and protecting signals for the crossing. At £3 million, the expected cost was less than the bridge and diversion option but still an expensive and long project to implement. Significantly, it brought resolution of the safety problem within Network Rail’s gift and not subject to lengthy legal timescales to acquire land that had an uncertain outcome.
Once retention of the crossing was agreed, it proved possible to make a business case to justify half of the expenditure on safety grounds and half from the operational cost savings. Risk assessment of the crossing suggested a 5% per annum risk of a fatality. Authority was granted for the full project at the outset, subject to mid-term review of costs. This meant that procurement of delivery could progress in parallel with the design work, saving around four months of process time.
Two near misses
Unfortunately, while the scheme was being developed, two near misses occurred which confirmed the need to improve the crossing.
On the 21 March 2011 the barriers were inadvertently raised for a car to cross. The crossing keeper had been using the toilet and when he returned to his desk he noticed a car waiting to cross and instantly raised the barriers with the light displaying red.
A short term measure was put in place consisting of separate raise and lower buttons which had to be pressed and held to cause the barriers to move. Lights on a panel repeated the indication of the miniature stop lights and an audible alarm was provided to sound for five seconds when the lights changed from green to red to alert the crossing keeper. This work was designed and implemented in-house by Network Rail and, as it was still not a compliant MCB, the necessary derogations to standards were obtained. All the operators were re-briefed and additional surveillance checks were implemented.
This was still not sufficient to provide a safe system and at approximately 18:20 on Friday 28 September 2012 train 2F87, the 17:03 passenger service from Manchester Airport to Southport narrowly avoided collision with a car that was crossing the railway. The crossing keeper made an error and raised the barriers when the lights were showing red in response to the car waiting at the crossing. He had been distracted by spilling a hot drink over a computer keyboard and did not check the indication of the lights before raising the barriers.
Following this incident, the situation could not continue. Lancashire County Council agreed to an emergency closure, followed by a temporary order through to the end of the works. This caused many problems to some of the residents and farmers, with longer journeys for work, schools and shopping. Damage was caused to the narrow roads that saw increased traffic. On 1 November 2012, a site meeting was held at which concerns were heard. There was an acceptance that the safety issue was significant and that Network Rail needed to press on – which was helped by the closure.
During the winter, residents had further cause to be upset as, independently of the level crossing project, it had been decided to fully renew one of the lines through the site using high output equipment. Lack of consultation over those works and inconsiderate practices by Network Rail’s contractors led to several complaints to which it was difficult to respond positively.
Behind the scenes, the project team pressed on with making sure that the necessary approvals would be in place for the novel technology. Following problems on Anglia route, a range of modifications were being proposed to the circuits and hardware. For example, provision of a shutter on the lidar camera to reduce the build-up of dirt – it only opens during the passage of trains.
Eventually, a trial certificate was obtained to allow construction and commissioning to happen, with modifications following later. Babcock was appointed as the main contractor with the design and implementation managed by its Crewe office.
Finally, on Monday 20 May 2013, the new OD crossing opened. Since then, there have been no reported safety incidents. OD problems have been with the supplementary lidar detector in the six foot causing a right side failure, due to the ingress of dirt and the detection of vegetation. Plans are in place, as with all OD Crossings, to provide a shutter to keep the radar clean which only opens when the device is required to sweep the crossing.
There have also been problems with the quality and availability of signalling relays that has affected reliability of the system, but these problems are not unique to Four Lane Ends or OD crossings, and the introduction of Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) technology will improve the reliability of other OD crossings and signalling control systems.
Shaws is an adjacent UWC-MWL crossing and, while located on a private road has had instances of miss-use. Now that Four Lane Ends has a compliant crossing, it may be possible to provide a short road diversion, close Shaws Crossing and remove another risk from the operational railway, all thanks to OD.
This article was first published in Rail Engineer March 2015 Issue 125