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 Some of the Acts have been partially repealed and some of their provisions have become spent or obsolete.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.

King’s Cross Square

Put out the flags! Let the bands play!

For tomorrow – 26 September 2013 – is an historic day! And not because Network Rail’s David Higgins has been appointed the next chairman of High Speed 2 Limited (although that’s pretty important).
No, for tomorrow is the day Network Rail unveils its new public square outside King’s Cross station. NR reckons it will be the first time for 161 years that people will have an unobstructed view of Lewis Cubitt’s London terminus.
NR has spent the last year tearing down the station’s old southern concourse in a job more difficult than it looked thanks to the concourse roof’s particular construction. That concourse was meant to be temporary when it was built in the 1970s to replace a plethora of huts than inhabited the space between the station and Euston Road. There was also a classic London Underground station building in the same area to lend some dignity to what otherwise was just a jumble.
However, all is now gone. There is now a square with stripes of granite running across it to reflect, according to its architects, the linear rhythm of the railway. Benches and trees will relieve the space, as will three vent shafts.
I suspect the architects would have preferred not to have London Underground vent shafts spoiling the otherwise clean lines of their square. However, they could not be moved and so the designers have made the best of the job in hand.
From west to east the vents are known as the Egg, the Rotunda and the Push-Pull, with the latter the least obvious. The Egg and Rotunda will feature a shop each to make them at least appear useful to passing pedestrians. They have also been clad in granite.
There is also an army of stumpy silver pillars lining the edge of the square. Apparently compulsory for unexplained security reasons they have the effect of enclosing this public space.
The square marks the final stage of the station’s massive rebuilding project. It’s certainly come a long way from its dingy past of just a few years ago. It’s now a welcoming and bright place; more refined than its brash neighbour St Pancras. And with York or Edinburgh on offer from its trains there’s every reason to become a passenger.
King's Cross Square large 24 September 2013
A view from the roof of King’s Cross station on 24 September 2013 as work continues to make the square beneath ready for its grand opening on 26 September.

Moving on from RAIL Magazine

Leaving any job can be difficult. When you’ve been working for a magazine such as RAIL for 16 years it is all the harder. Those 16 years have seen a vast range of highs and lows.
There’s been a boom in passenger numbers and a proliferation of freight companies shifting goods around the country. We’ve seen St Pancras station transformed and High Speed 1 opened. The West Coast Main Line has been modernised (well, most of it) and tilting trains now run in daily service.
But I can’t ignore the grim accidents that punctuated the early years. Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield were terrible to see, as were Heck and Ufton despite them not being the railway’s fault. Having seen the devastation at Heck up close the following day, this accident still brings a lump to my throat. I also saw the tyremarks on the M62 that showed how close the accident came to never happening.
There have been many highlights. The best of them saw me standing on top of the Forth Bridge. When I was studying mechanical engineering at Heriot Watt University I could see the bridge a few miles distant but I never imagined I would stand on its top. My visit coincided with some windy weather but the bridge just absorbs the wind’s energy. It was rock-solid – which is comforting when you’re so far up!
Other RAIL jobs have seen me under the Pennines in Standedge Tunnel. My trip took me through the disused bores but I could hear trains passing in the live tunnels and feel the air shifting as they passed through.
Then there’s the people I’ve met. Signallers, drivers, track staff, managers at all levels, and a few politicians and ministers. All influence today’s railway and it’s been a great privilege to be able to talk to them and quiz them on what they do and why they do it.
Now I’m switching to the world of a freelance railway writer. This blog forms part of that world. You’ll find news and views here – the news will be the railway’s and the views will be mine. There will be much to write about. Network Rail has a major electrification programme underway, Hitachi is about to build a new fleet of high-speed trains, money is being poured into daily improvements around Britain and there are tunnelling machines boring their way under London to form Crossrail.
High Speed 2 is coming. It will bring major change to Britain’s railway network in a way not seen since the network was built.
I should be busy