Level crossings

It’s a measure of the complexities of level crossings that the Law Commission has just spent the last five years investigating the rules that lie behind such crossings before publishing a report containing over 100 recommendations.
In each of the last ten years, an average of 12 people have died in accidents at level crossings. They represent the biggest safety risk to railways today.
The Law Commission (and its Scottish equivalent, for this report is a joint one) outlines the problem and suggests a new act of parliament and secondary legislation to make laws surrounding level crossings clearer.
In its report, it says: “The legislation governing level crossings is complex and antiquated, much of it dating back to the nineteenth century when the main railways were constructed under individual local Acts, called special Acts. Today, the relevant legislative provisions are contained in a combination of public general Acts, private Acts, bye-laws, and subordinate legislation in the form of Orders and Regulations, many of which have been amended heavily over the years. Some of the Acts have been partially repealed and some of their provisions have become spent or obsolete. It is not always clear which legislative provisions apply and which take precedence.”
It notes how difficult it can be to close level crossings. This is Network Rail’s preferred course of action in order to improve rail safety.
Most level crossings are covered by their own legal orders that define what they are. This extends to specifying the power of the bulbs fitted to their warning lights. It means that it is illegal for NR to fit LEDs to level crossings in place of bulbs despite the LED being better for visibility. In practice, the Office of Rail Regulation has decided not to take action because it admits the changes improve safety.
Then there’s the problem of legislation pulling level crossing owners in different directions. Take a simple crossing over a footpath. Fitting gates is surely a good idea. Making these gates spring-loaded so that they cannot be left open appears sensible. Having the gates open away from the railway is also sensible because it allows someone caught on the crossing to leave quickly. But, consider a wheelchair user and ponder the difficulties of opening such a gate to allow the user to cross the tracks.
Or, how about the balance between road and rail users at busy crossings. There are some around the country that close for 45 minutes in every hour much to road users’ frustrations. In turn, this frustration could lead to motorists and other LC users taking safety risks.
In the early days of LCs, railway companies were required to erect gates and keep them closed across the road until there was traffic waiting to cross. The Railway Regulation Act 1842 allowed the companies to keep gates open for road traffic and close them only when trains needed to pass.
More recently barriers have replaced gates. But as automatic half-barriers have given way to full barriers, the commission concludes that there’s been a shift from convenience for road users to improved safety.
In extreme cases, it might be for a minister to decide for how long in each hour a particular level crossing may be closed to road traffic.
The Law Commission recommends that Britain adopt Level Crossing Plans which for each crossing would outline what road and railway authorities should do to keep the crossing safe.
It decided not to recommend that a series of new criminal offences be created to deal with users’ actions at level crossings. However, it has recommended that the laws surrounding existing offences are updated in modern language to allow them to be better understood. For example, it’s an offence under section 36 of the Malicious Damage Act 1861 to obstruct a train. The language in that act is likely to be rather different from modern legislation.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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