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SAVING LIVES AT LEVEL CROSSINGS
Unlit and undated level crossings can be a death trap.

OTA attended the Australian Trucking Association’s (ATA) recent Trucking Australia 24 conference, where one session covered the vital topic of railway level crossing accidents, counting their cost in ives and damage, as well as suggestions on how to mitigate this problem.

 

Passive level crossing – North Narrabri NSW – ARTC photo

 

We know that the ATA’s primary interest is the road transport industry, but any initiatives this body can progress will help all of us at railway level crossings.

The level crossing accident session was chaired by Rachel Smith, the national executive director of the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association. She is a person representing truck operators who are only too keenly aware of level crossing hazards.

The two experts who commented from the lectern were Christopher Wren and Sal Petroccitto OAM. Dr Wren is not the bloke who designed London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, but a smartly-kitted lawyer, who joined the ATA in 2023 as Senior Policy Advisor and leads the ATA’s work on the level crossing issues. Mr Petroccitto has headed up the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator as CEO since 2013.

The presentations began with a video of a long freight train transiting an unlit level crossing in the middle of the night. The entire train was also unlit, making it difficult for approaching road vehicle drivers to make out anything on the tracks, amid general blackness.

“Between the 1st of July, 2014 and 31st of December, 2022, there were 39 lives lost and 49 serious injuries at rail crossings in this country,” opened Chris Wren. 

“Those aren’t just numbers (but) are men and women who left home and never returned.

“And there have been thousands of near-misses at level crossings, all across the country. 

“This is a really big, complex problem.”

Dr Wren pointed out that level crossing collisions involving heavy vehicles were more likely to lead to injuries of the occupants of rail vehicles, more likely to damage rail vehicles and track, and more likely to derail trains. 

Unfortunately, available accident data does not include the level of damage sustained by road vehicles and road and rail infrastructure. The data does not include the speed, direction, mass, or length of road vehicles. Quite importantly, the data does not include the actions of the road user.

The ATSB’s work  indicates that human error – road drivers not seeing trains – is a large contributor to potential incidents.

“The ATSB admits that any controls that help road users detect the presence of trains will provide an enhanced level of safety,” said Dr Wren.

“The ATA, along with numerous other groups and plenty of peer-reviewed academic and scientific journals, considers that illuminating trains better – ideally with flashing lights – is an effective control that will enhance safety. 

“I’m quite new to this subject but I have seen 25 and 30 year-old coroner’s records that are making the same recommendations for illumination that we’re making now. 

“One of the things (the ATA) is doing is advocating for train illumination to be a legal requirement.”

Christopher Wren said that the rail regulator currently has a code of practice, entitled Level Crossings and Train Visibility, but the document is entirely voluntary and leaves the decision on whether rolling stock operators increase train visibility up to them.

Several studies have examined the effects of strobe lights mounted on the side and front of trains, ditch lights illuminating the side of the track and track-crossing lights, which are a flashing variant of ditch lights. All these solutions produced statistically significant increases in train detection distances and the greatest increase resulted from the use of all three.

“Accidents during night-time represent a significant proportion of total road deaths, suggesting that decreased visibility might play a significant role in why crashes are happening,” said Dr Wren.

“More than 20 organisations nationally, including peak road transport bodies, are supporting the push for better lighting on trains.”

In the interim, the ATA and the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) have issued a crucial safety notice to help track drivers remain vigilant at level crossings. The National Level Crossing Safety Notice includes simple do’s and simple don’ts for drivers to remember.

“If you live in a constituency with a passive level crossing, you must write to your local politician and explain the dangers that poorly lit trains pose to your community,” said Dr Wren.

“Drivers must have all the tools they need to do their job safely. 

“If you’re driving, then you owe it to your family and … your loved ones to make sure you come home to them.”

 

 

The NHVR view

 

“You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that trains take longer to stop than trucks, and trucks take longer than cars to stop, so there are some serious issues there for us,” said Sal  Petroccitto, the NHVR’s CEO.

“As Chris has indicated, we have released that safety notice (that) is more than just a piece of paper:

 

 

 

Sal Petroccitto also pointed out that compliance with road rules remained very important.

“Any controlled crossing that has a give way or stop sign is a road rule issue: if you fail to obey it, you’re breaking the road rules“ said Mr Petroccitto.

“I can assure you that there are now cameras on trains and on crossings.”

Sal Petroccitto said that the NHVR is working with the National Rail Safety Regulator (NRSR) on a unified and standardised education program and also with the with the NRSR, Austoads and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) on better data capture, better data sharing how that data is better utilised in the way assessments are being done at level crossings. 

The NHVR is continuing to seek rail information for its spatial map and portal. He’s approached ARTC, the state jurisdictions and private rail operators to make that information available.

Mr Petroccitto also said that The NHVR is testing some technology at the moment that can send driver alerts about critical crossings, to help drivers navigate them.

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