Safety at level crossings - Transport Committee Contents

4  Helping people use level crossings safely


40. Claims of deliberate misuse of level crossings often receive widespread media attention. These instances mask the near misses and fatalities that occur because of human factors, where the design, engineering and maintenance of the level crossing and its environment interact with the limitations of human cognition to such an extent that decision-making is impaired. Level crossing users may also impair their own hazard perception, for example by wearing headphones. The risk of harm in these scenarios can be reduced by enforcement, engineering and education.

Vulnerable users

41. Some users of level crossings are particularly vulnerable. For example, young people are vulnerable because they are unable to process correctly the speed of objects coming towards them. Research conducted by Royal Holloway, University of London, showed that children perceived cars moving towards them at more than 20 mph as stationary.[77] Older users may be vulnerable because their field of view can diminish over time; studies have suggested that this can be at a rate of between 1° and 3° per decade.[78] In a recent Belgian study, it was revealed that 10% of older motorists did not meet the European eyesight standards for driving.[79] As well as the obvious concern for motoring standards this is an issue for pedestrians. In particular, sighting distances-the distance at which a train can first be seen-may be optimistic if measured by a younger adult for risk assessment purposes.

42. Research by University College London showed that older pedestrians (aged 65 or over) cannot achieve the 1.2 metres per second (m/s) walking speeds assumed in the programming ofpedestrian road crossings and therefore cannot use pedestrian crossings safely. The mean walking speed achieved was 0.9 m/s in men and 0.8 m/s in women.[80] This has implications for level crossing safety, where traverse speeds of 1.2 m/s are assumed for level surfaces close to rail level, and 1 m/s for other surfaces.[81]

43. Research using eye-trackers showed that 5% of users did not look in either direction and 16% looked in only one direction when using a level crossing. Possible reasons for these behaviours included knowledge of the train timetable and reliance on listening for trains.[82] Network Rail recently released a video that demonstrates the difficulty in perceiving train direction from hearing alone.[83]

"Whistle boards" and "decision points"

44. Train horns sounded at "whistle boards" (signs which tell drivers to sound their horns) can be particularly unreliable as warnings. During the night-time quiet period (2300-0700), train drivers are instructed not to sound horns as they pass whistle boards so that lineside residents are not disturbed, except if the driver sees someone on the track.[84] Early morning and late night level crossing users may therefore become more vulnerable in the absence of an audible warning. Even during hours when a horn can be sounded, hearing impairments or local factors (such as wind direction) can reduce the audibility of the warning. Wind direction was found to be a possible contributing factor to a recent fatality at the Mexico footpath crossing in Cornwall.[85] Driver non-compliance with the requirement to sound a warning was observed by RAIB during a separate investigation at Tackley in Oxfordshire.[86] Robin Gisby, Network Rail's Managing Director, Network Operations, told us that Network Rail would be introducing technology to sound the warning from equipment at the crossing itself, rather than from the train.[87]
Box 4: Mexico crossing, 2011

Mexico footpath crossing, Long Rock, near Penzance, Cornwall, October 2011: The footpath crossing was used solely to access the beach.The RAIB found that Mrs Nicholls, who was fatally struck by a train, may not have heard the train horn because of the prevailing wind direction. There were no other warning systems. The RAIB recommended safety improvements for the crossing. There is also a protected crossing just 200m away. The coroner later made a 'Rule 43' report recommending closure. The crossing was closed in June 2013 and, in November 2013, Cornwall County Council extended the closure and applied to the Secretary of State to have the right of way extinguished.

45. Claire Turner, Principal Consultant, Human Factors, at Environmental Resources Management, noted that crossing users are generally unaware that they need to be at least two metres away from the tracks in order to remain safe.[88] Indeed at footpath crossings on mainlines and bridleway crossings this minimum distance is three metres.[89] This has a dual effect:

·  public users may be unaware of the safe place to stand to allow a train to pass; and

·  railway staff conducting risk assessments may make incorrect assumptions about where crossing users normally stop, look and listen (known as the "decision point"), and may therefore be measuring sighting distances inappropriately.[90]

46. TRL noted that the absence of a clear point at public highway crossings at which people should safely decide whether or not to cross means that pedestrians are unclear where it is safe to stand and are therefore at risk of being struck by barrier equipment.[91] Based on their own research, they made a number of recommendations on how to improve situational awareness at level crossings. We recommend that the Office of Rail Regulation reviews level crossing guidance and standards in view of recent human factors research, including the impact of delays, visual perception of older people, different traverse speeds and ambiguity about where to stand safely before crossing.

Highway Code and other road regulations

47. The Highway Code applies to both motorists and pedestrians. It covers the rules of conduct[92] and signage to be expected at crossings.[93] Research commissioned by RSSB showed that signage relating to level crossings is poorly understood and can be cluttered and confusing.[94] This is a view shared by local authority senior managers, who suggested that the depiction of steam locomotives on two of the three traffic signs might not be readily understood by younger drivers.[95] RSSB is undertaking further research into traffic signs, with a view to making recommendations to the Department for Transport.[96] TRL has made numerous recommendations not just in relation to signs but also as regards other engineering improvements for each type of level crossing, such as warning systems, tactile surface markings, barriers and operation of the crossings.[97]

48. On level crossings shared by motorists and pedestrians, if a warning system is provided it will include a pair of red lights, side by side, which flash alternately (known as wig-wag lights).[98] Studies have shown that these lights are generally well-understood, although there are potentially issues around the element of surprise associated with the signals, the absence of a green light to indicate that motorists may proceed with caution, and the visibility of the signals.[99]

49. The RAIB identified the poor visibility of wig-wag signals and barriers against strong background sunlight and glare as causal factors in a fatal accident at Beech Hill, near Finningley, in December 2012. In April 2013, four months after the accident, the RAIB issued an Urgent Safety Notice advising that the lamps and lenses fitted to the signals needed to be upgraded.[100]

50. The DfT's written submission did not address the road aspects of safety at the road-rail interface within its own remit, such as the Highway Code, signage, guidance on road layouts and standards.[101] The Minister said that "part of what Network Rail has been spending its money on is indeed to do with the clarity of signage".[102]The DfT has not been proactive in assessing how it could make level crossings safer, for example by improving road signage. We recommend that, as part of the forthcoming overhaul of the Traffic Signs and General Directions 2002,[103]DfT revise its guidance on signage and road layouts based on the latest research findings from TRL and RSSB.

Motorists' education

51. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) administers approximately 1.6 million theory tests and 1.7 million practical tests each year, with the vast majority of these being for car drivers.[104] The driving practical test is designed to last for 40 minutes. It is unlikely that driving over a level crossing would be possible for most driving test candidates, either during lessons or as part of the practical test, due to the distance between crossings and the time taken to cross. Only 6% of test routes include a level crossing. The driving theory test is therefore the primary method of assessment concerning motoring standards at level crossings.[105]

52. One of the topic areas on the driving theory test relates to "hazard awareness", which includes railways and level crossings. Six questions are asked on this topic, with 75% of candidates being asked at least one question on railways and level crossings.[106]Around 80% of candidates answer level crossing questions correctly, with 94% answering correctly on what to do if their vehicle breaks down on a level crossing.[107]

53. The driving theory test includes a hazard perception test, which is a series of 14 video clips that contain "developing hazards". These are hazards that are not in a fixed location and would require some action to be taken, such as a change of speed or direction.[108] Hazard perception training is aimed at developing the cognitive skills to identify hazards, although the action to be taken in response to a hazard is not currently part of the test. Research on hazard perception training conducted by TRL showed a 17% decrease in some crash types for novice drivers who had undergone the training.[109] Level crossings are "static hazards" because their location does not change, so they are not currently included in the hazard perception test. However, they are likely to be incorporated into the next iteration of the test, which is planned for 2015.[110]

54. We note the strong evidence base for the hazard perception test and encourage its further development. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) should incorporate level crossings into the next version of the hazard perception test. As well as identification of the hazard, the DVSA should consider ways of ensuring that the test assesses actions to be taken in response to level crossings.

Pedestrian education

55. In the UK, rail safety education campaigns have largely been driven by the rail industry. The RSSB runs "Trackoff", which is paid for by the rail industry.[111] Trackoff produces a number of educational resources, including posters and teaching resources. Network Rail has also pursued a number of initiatives.[112]The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) told us about the LASER Alliance, which is a multi-agency scheme for educating people about risk.[113]

56. Personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), which is taught in schools as part of the National Curriculum, covers risk management and personal safety.[114] However only road safety is explicitly mentioned, with no references to other modes of transport.[115]The Department for Education's PSHE curriculum only includes road safety in its coverage of transport safety. DFE should explicitly include rail safety (including level crossings) in the PSHE curriculum.

77   Q23 [Claire Turner] referring to John P. Wann, Damian R. Poulter and Catherine Purcell, "Reduced sensitivity to visual looming inflates the risk posed by speeding vehicles when children try to cross the road", Psychological Science, (2011) 22:429. Research on speed perception of trains is being undertaken at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Back

78   Q23 [Claire Turner] referring to Johnson CA,Keltner JL, "Incidence of visual field loss in 20,000 eyes and its relationship to driving performance", Arch Ophthalmol (1983) Mar 101(3):371-5. Back

79   Levecq L,De Potter P,Jamart J, "Visual acuity and factors influencing automobile driving status in 1,000 patients age 60 and older", Graefes Arch Clin Exp Ophthalmol (2013) Mar 251(3):881-7 Back

80   Laura Asher, Maria Aresu, Emanuela Falaschetti, Jennifer Mindell, "Most older pedestrians are unable to cross the road in time: a cross-sectional study",Age and Ageing(2012) 41: 690-694 Back

81   Level Crossings: A guide for managers, designers and operators, Railway Safety Publication 7, Office of Rail Regulation, December 2011 (Para 2.161) Back

82   Q22 [Claire Turner]  Back

83   Track Tests - Wretch32 and George the Poet, Network Rail YouTube channel Back

84   Train horns - rail industry implemented changes, RSSB Back

85   Fatal accident at Mexico footpath crossing (near Penzance), 3 October 2011, Rail Accident Investigation Branch, Report 10/2012, June 2012 (para 77) Back

86   Fatal accident at Tackley station level crossing, Oxfordshire, 31 March 2008,Rail Accident Investigation Branch, Report 09/2009, March 2009 (para 90) Back

87   Q173 [Robin Gisby] Back

88   Q22 [Claire Turner] Back

89   Level Crossings: A guide for managers, designers and operators, Railway Safety Publication 7, Office of Rail Regulation, December 2011 (Para 2.155) Back

90   Q22 [Claire Turner] The railway sets a decision point of between 2 and 3 metres, depending on the type of crossing and line speed. Decision points may not be marked at the crossing. Back

91   Transport Research Laboratory (SLC 023) para 15 Back

92   Level crossings (291 to 299), Department for Transport and Rules for pedestrians - situations needing extra care (31 to 35), Department for Transport Back

93   Level crossing signs and signals, Department for Transport; Back

94   T756: Research into signs and signals at level crossings, RSSB, July 2011 (pages 37 and 43) Back

95   Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) (SLC 061) Back

96   Q132 [Michael Woods] Back

97   TRL (SLC 023) Back

98   Traffic Advisory Leaflet 1/08, Wig-wag signals, Department for Transport, December 2008 Back

99   T756: Research into signs and signals at level crossings, RSSB, July 2011 (pages 40, 41, and 44) Back

100   Q125 [Carolyn Griffiths] and Collision between a train and a car at Beech Hill level crossing, near Finningley, 4 December 2012, Rail Accident Investigation Branch, Report 17/2013 v2, September 2013 (para 107 and Appendix C) Back

101   Department for Transport (SLC 006); Local transport notes, Department for Transport; Traffic signs manual, Department for Transport Back

102   Qq195, 198 [Stephen Hammond MP]. Back

103   See HC Deb, 13 Oct 11, c46WS.Traffic sign legislation set for 'radical' overhaul, Transport Network, 16 April 2013 Back

104   Driving Standards Agency (SLC 028) and Driver and Rider Test and Instructor Statistics, Great Britain: Quarter 4 2012/13, Department for Transport, 27 June 2013. Figures in the summarised number of tests stated above may not match the tables, due to rounding. Back

105   Q42 [Lesley Young], Driving Standards Agency (SLC 028) para 19 Back

106   Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (SLC 046) Back

107   Qq38-39 [Lesley Young] Back

108   The driving theory test for cars and motorcycles, Back

109   Statistical modelling produced a central estimate showing a 17.4% reduction in non-low-speed accident liability in the first year of driving for those who had taken the hazard perception test, compared with those who had not (3.0% reduction at the 95% confidence interval). Road Safety Research Report No. 81, Cohort II: A Study of Learner and New Drivers, Volume 1 - Main Report, Wells et al, Department for Transport, May 2008 (Table 9.8, page 169) with a slide pack by Dr Neale Kinnear, TRL, on Young and Novice Driver Research summarising additional findings Back

110   Qq40-41 [Lesley Young], Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (SLC 046) Back

111   Trackoff Back

112   Network Rail initiatives: the "Don't Run The Risk" advertising campaign, which ran from 2006; See Track, Think Train - a more recent advertising campaign specifically about level crossings; the Rail Life website, aimed at 12-17 year olds; and Safety education, with lesson plans for primary and secondary schools, and factsheets for parents Back

113   RoSPA (SLC 013) para 31 Back

114   Personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, Department for Education Back

115   Programme of Study for PSHE education, PSHE Association, October 2013 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 7 March 2014