The road-rail interface

RSSB’s Alan Davies and Michael Woods talk about the work RSSB manages on behalf of the rail industry on the road-rail interface, including level crossings

The interface between the road and the railway presents a number of potential safety risks for the railway and members of the public. Other than stations, level crossings are the only places where the non-travelling public legitimately comes into contact with, and can have an influence on, the operational railway.
Indeed, most of this risk involves members of the public, predominately pedestrians, being struck by trains. Such accidents are likely to prove fatal, largely because the mass and speed of a train are such that a collision is more likely to kill a person than cause injuries. The second largest grouping involves collisions between trains and road vehicles. Crossing users can also be harmed if they are hit by, or collide with, barriers or other equipment – or if they slip, trip or fall while traversing the crossing.
Some risk arises from bridge strikes, incursions at fences, bridges, embankments and access points. Such incursions often result from road traffic accidents (for example where a road vehicle crashes through a boundary fence).
From a technical perspective, level crossings are designed to be safe when used correctly. However, misuse through lack of knowledge, abuse, error, incompetence or on some very rare occasions, mechanical failure can result in trains striking pedestrians or road vehicles. When this happens, the crossing user runs a significant chance of being killed or seriously injured.
Although crossing users bear the majority of the risk, those on the train can also be affected. In the past decade there have been two occasions where the behaviour of the road user led directly to serious train accidents with fatalities to staff and passengers. At Ufton Nervet in Berkshire in November 2004, a train derailed after hitting a car that had been parked on a crossing by a motorist who was committing suicide. In February 2001, at Great Heck, North Yorkshire, a sleep-deprived motorist unintentionally veered his Land Rover and trailer off the M62 motorway, down an embankment and on to the railway into the path of a passenger train and a freight train coming from both directions. This kind of event is very rare, although level crossings specifically represent the single largest source of train accident risk.

The rail industry repsonse
The road-rail interface issue represents a safety and business risk to both the infrastructure and trains, and as such warrants a joined up cross-industry response. Through RSSB, the rail industry comes together as one to respond to issues like this.
It facilitates the cross-industry Road-Rail Interface Safety Group (R-RISG), to steer the work of the rail industry, together with representation from local highway authorities, in increasing awareness of the hazards and risk at level crossings, bridge strikes and other incursions by motor vehicles onto the railway, arising from inappropriate behaviour. It also examines public policy and makes recommendations to simplify and consolidate regulatory matters covering safety at level crossings, including road traffic and highway matters, planning guidelines for development and the effective prosecution of offenders in the interest of public safety.
The group is chaired by Network Rail (which owns the vast majority of level crossings), and includes representation from the Association of Train Operating Companies, British Transport Police, County Surveyors Society (CSS), Department for Transport, the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), and RSSB itself. Network Rail manages a Bridge Strike Prevention Group and local Road-Rail Partnership Groups.
RSSB helped to create the European Level Crossing Forum (ELCF), which brings together road and rail administrations from many countries to share experience and research into designing and operating level crossings, and raising public awareness through education campaigns. RSSB’s Alan Davies currently chairs the forum.

Research & development
R-RISG sponsors research to increase the rail industry’s knowledge base to tackle the causes of level crossing misuse, and assess the effectiveness of existing and new technologies in reducing risk, including ways of improving management. It includes technical, human factors and economic issues that affect the railway (and roads) at level crossings, of which there are almost 6,700 on the national rail network, and also covers the bridge strike and vehicle incursion issues.
At the broadest level, the topic considers the impact of external and societal changes on level crossings and other places where the road network impinges on the railway, including bridges. The scope extends beyond the rail industry and the British context to understand and learn from best practice elsewhere.
There are several key areas of research supporting the cross-industry activity:

  • Understanding the risk at level crossings including the behaviour of different social groups, societal and attitudinal changes and how these impact on the design of safety communications.
  • Identifying new technical and operational solutions to prevent errors and misuse of crossings – e.g. median strips (a form of physical barrier, separating adjacent lanes) on the road approaches to crossings, to prevent ‘zig-zagging’ at crossings with half-barriers.
  • Modelling the costs of level crossings and the benefits of adopting alternatives to optimise societal benefits - to help inform decisions using cost benefit analysis, whether it is economical in the long term to replace any particular crossing by a bridge or by diverting traffic to other routes. A model is currently on trial in several local authority areas. 
  • Working in collaboration with highway and planning authorities to design out safety risk out of new schemes at source, reduce road congestion/delay and save money through integrated planning.
  • Understanding the needs of vulnerable users at level crossings to facilitate social inclusion.
  • Reviewing and overhauling the legislative framework for level crossings to identify legal requirements and consolidate disparate regulations.
  • Understanding the role of the motorist in bridge strikes, and the human factors which contribute to their failure to realise that their vehicles are too high to go under the bridges they are approaching. Identifying what training could help motorists to be more aware of the height of their vehicles. Exploring potential technological improvements including cameras and signage. 
  • Supporting inquiry recommendations, government and regulatory policies, proposed and new legislation.
  • Identifying and sharing good practice in Britain and overseas to facilitate the adoption of appropriate solutions.

This work has led to a number of practical solutions and stakeholder engagement activities that are benefitting the rail industry and the users of crossings. These have included:

Building the All Level Crossing Risk Model (ALCRM) with Network Rail – which won the Award for the Advancement of Railway System Safety in 2007. ALCRM is a web-based risk tool for Network Rail to be able to model (and so manage) the risk to crossing users, passengers and rail staff by targeting those crossings with the highest risk for remedial measures.
Working with the Driving Standards Agency and CSS to improve awareness of critical safety issues relating to level crossings through revisions of the Highway Code and Theory Test for learner motorists. This included a stronger focus on the hazards presented by overhead lines, the application of tactile surfaces for visually-impaired pedestrians, the requirement for horse-riders to dismount, in addition to the full explanation of what’s required of road-users in response to the relevant light signals and signs.
Supporting Network Rail with safety statistics to reinforce its Don’t Run the Risk advertising campaign on television, radio and the internet. The campaign is designed to encourage the right behaviour at crossings, discouraging motorists and pedestrians from putting themselves in mortal danger by taking the risk to cross when they shouldn’t.
Assessing the feasibility of technology to detect obstacles on the railway line at level crossings and communicate this to approaching trains. The challenge is not straightforward. RSSB’s research showed that detection can create new problems, for example non-hazardous obstacles might be detected – e.g. a fox running across the line. There is also the issue of how best to communicate and respond to the original detection, in an effective way. However, the research did provide direction to next steps including developing a specification for obstacle detection as part of an automatic full-barrier (AFB) crossing concept, which Network Rail is actively assessing.
Working with the The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) and the Law Commissions to review the laws and guidance regulating the use, safety requirements, closure and other aspects of railway level crossings – much of it being antiquated and fragmented and embedded in 19th century private legislation. This builds on an in-depth review by a cross-industry working party facilitated by RSSB following the Ufton Nervet accident in 2004. The current process for modernising and closing crossings is unduly restrictive and long, and the means by which rights of way can be diverted or extinguished are very complex. The impact of later legislation such as environmental and disability regulations is not always clear. The vision of the Law Commissions is to provide a modern, accessible and balanced legal structure for level crossing regulation, fit for purpose for the 21st century.

Talking to the Crown Prosecution Service to encourage them to prosecute offenders and use impact statements, as well as supporting the ORR’s encouragement of the Sentencing Guidelines Council to increase suggested penalties for level crossing misuse to enhance the incentive for the proper use of crossings.
Embedding the European Road Safety Charter (ERSC) is a British national commitment. The ERSC is a European Commission initiative aimed at raising awareness about road traffic accidents and fatalities. Although level crossing fatalities are a very small fraction of the road deaths total, the European Level Crossing Forum has proactively supported it and signed it to demonstrate the issue’s significance.

For more information
For more information on the work RSSB manages on behalf of the GB rail industry in this area, contact or telephone 020 3142 5400 or go to An A5 compendia summarising the Road-Rail interface research which RSSB has managed for the industry is available to download and in hard copy from RSSB.

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