What is a Dangerous Level Crossing?

We may have referred somewhere (or maybe not) to Transport Accident Investigation Commission’s view on level crossing safety issues, which has made it into their Watchlist. TAIC has stated that there are hundreds of dangerous crossings in NZ. Whilst not referring to the total number of crossings with various issues, they have stated that 362 high risk crossings with short stacking distance issues have been identified, according to information supplied to them by Kiwirail. This suggests that Kiwirail is to some extent knowledgeable about some of the crossings in their network. We may have previously referred to our concerns that Kiwirail is whitewashing in the area of level crossing safety in that they will simply issue a standard denial without acknowledging that the crossing is something they are at least partly responsible for. There is no transparency because Kiwirail has ensured their safety information in the ALCAM database is not publicly accessible. So Kiwirail obviously has a motive to prevent the public at large from knowing about their dangerous crossings and is not prepared to make an acknowledgement publicly that a particular crossing is dangerous.

This is a list we made of issues that make a crossing dangerous:

  • Where there is a hump in the tracks that long vehicles can get stuck on (grounded).
  • Where the tracks cross on an angle which makes it very difficult for a driver to see a train coming from more than 90 degree angle to their vehicle.
  • Where there is a right angle turn just before the crossing that means a train could be coming from directly behind the driver that they could only see in their rear view mirror.
  • Where the crossing is too close to an intersection so that vehicles are unable to stop at the crossing and also be clear of the intersection at the same time.
  • Where an intersection is too close to the crossing so that vehicles which have crossed the tracks will not be able to stop at the intersection and be clear of the railway lines at the same time.
  • Where vegetation around the crossing is not kept trimmed so that a driver’s view is blocked.
  • Where there is a curve in the railway lines just before the crossing that means a train approaching from that direction cannot be seen until they are very close.
  • Where the angle of the sunlight at certain times of day causes sunstrike preventing drivers from being able to see an approaching train.
  • Where the crossing has more than two tracks, or enough width, that it can be difficult in conditions of heavy traffic, for a driver to judge whether there is enough stacking distance for them to cross over and stop on the other side of the crossing. There may also be a risk if a driver is unattentive that they do not take precautions and check if there is any clearance distance on the far side at all, and end up stopped in the middle of the crossing during heavy traffic times.
  • Similarly with a large crossing with multiple spaced out tracks, slow moving pedestrians such as elderly people may not have enough time to completely cross without getting caught with alarms starting when they are only partway across.

There is also a large question mark and has been for some time about Kiwirail’s awareness and followup even of maintenance of existing crossings, a recent example being flagged on Tracksafe’s page where a pedestrian barrier gate was not operable and even had a neatly printed sign put on it. Who put that sign in place, how long was the barrier gate inoperable and why it was not picked up by Kiwirail as they have built a ganger’s test switch into the design of every set of level crossing alarms, this implies they must have an expectation at least that alarms are being inspected and tested regularly. There have been other situations where Kiwirail has failed to maintain the trimming of vegetation on their land that is obscuring drivers’ views, or the infamous situation where a wheelchair bound person was almost run over on a crossing in Auckland because their wheels became stuck in tracks.

A key issue we need to keep the heat on Kiwirail about is that they are not open and accountable about the level crossing information they hold. Territorial councils at least are open organisations that have public accountability for discussing the issues with crossings they are responsible for.

Incident at Otaihanga Road Level Crossing

There has been an incident at Otaihanga Road Level Crossing – ALCAM #332 at 51.61 km on the NIMT between Paraparaumu and Waikanae. A train was stopped close to, but not on, the crossing, due to a failure, and the barrier arms remained down for about a 15 minute period before the train was able to resume its journey. Due to the extended delay, a number of cars drivers drove around the barrier arms creating a serious safety hazard.

There is no doubt that it was extremely foolish for these drivers to go over the crossing when the barriers and alarms were in operation. Otaihanga Road Level Crossing is in a double line area. Even if a train could be observed to have stopped on one of the lines, trains could have continued operating at full speed on the other line, which would have put both them and the car drivers at significant risk of collision.

Otaihanga Road Level Crossing is quite busy, with 100 trains per day and 7000 vehicle crossings. There are significant areas of residential development that account for the large volume of vehicles crossing the line each day. However, because the area has been historically of lower population density, level crossings in this area are widely spaced. There is no crossing north of Otaihanga before reaching the Reikorangi Stream. South of the location, it is possible to cross via the overbridge at Rimutaka Street just before the 49 km peg, but the access from the north to this location involves a long detour that effectively makes the access equivalent to crossing the railway at Kapiti Road at 48.38 km in Paraparaumu. This means for northern traffic, a lengthy detour if the crossing is blocked (probably at least 6 km).

Kiwirail have shown no inclination to date (remembering the Tamahine level crossing wrangle at Waharoa some years ago) to acknowledge that having crossings so far apart in this area creates significant inconvenience for residents because it is such a distance to detour if the crossing is blocked. In this case, the fact the crossing was not blocked is all the more important because a mechanism is needed for alarms to be cancelled. In a more populous urban area, much greater pressure would be brought to bear on Kiwirail to address issues such as these, and it is likely more crossings would exist in such areas. Historically, in some areas, provision has been made for crossings alarms to be manually started and stopped by

Whilst we do not wish to encourage dangerous motorist behaviour of driving around barrier arms or disregarding operating alarms, we do want Kiwirail to acknowledge that having so few crossings in this area creates undesirable consequences if the crossing is blocked for any length of time.

Level Crossing Safety In Otago

As we recall it may have been written back near the start of this blog that railway level crossing safety is one of our key concerns. We are concerned that Kiwirail has many dangerous level crossings under its control, that it is ignoring because fixing them can be expensive and it is only prepared to give improvements a low priority unless there is major public concern. We are generally concerned that the numerous roading authorities (territorial councils) lack the expertise to be able to assess level crossing safety and that as Kiwirail is the primary rail operator and it also owns the national railway network, it needs to be a lot more proactive in taking action on dangerous crossings.

Kiwirail operates a public web site as part of its internal GIS system. The site is called Kiwirail ALCAM and it gives information about every level crossing in New Zealand, marked on an interactive map. Only some information is released however. Kiwirail keeps some information about level crossings private. We believe more of the information about each level crossing, including Kiwirail’s own assessments of how dangerous it is, should be more publicly available. This is because of what we see as Kiwirail’s tendency to downplay the danger at crossings, or to try to shift the blame.

Kiwirail is a Crown entity and we believe as it is Government owned we need to see more public accountability from Kiwirail over level crossing safety in that we need to be assured that Kiwirail has the ability to safely assess level crossings. It is important to note that Kiwirail does not have the sole responsibility for a crossing. The actual responsibility is shared with a roading authority in the case of a public road. Around the country there are also many private level crossings, which are shared between Kiwirail and individual land owners. In each case Kiwirail must authorise the installation of the crossing. It can easily be inferred that there is some responsibility for Kiwirail to ensure a crossing is safe.

This responsibility is also enshrined to some extent in the Health and Safety laws of this country. Kiwirail is responsible for ensuring both the safety of its employees and the safety of the public when they enter onto a public site of Kiwirail. Level crossings are a public Kiwirail site when they have been authorised as such by Kiwirail. The Railways Act gives some specific guidelines relating to level crossings as there are particular rules in that Act that relate to railways.

The reason for posting this blog is that there has been a level crossing accident at a crossing at Mosgiel, which Kiwirail’s spokesperson in the media quickly blamed on the road user, although the statement made was a generic one and didn’t appear to address this particular one. Although it can be difficult to be sure of exactly which crossing is being referred to in a news report, the description appears to correspond to ALCAM Level Crossing 3344 at 394.24 km, which is a private level crossing off Gladstone Road and nearly opposite Cemetery Road. The crossing sees daily trains of 9 and daily vehicles of 100. It does not take much effort to look at the crossing and see that the stacking distance for heavy motor vehicles, which use the crossing, is manifestly insufficient.

We can see by the scale included at the bottom that a vehicle stopping at the crossing to enter the site would have around 5 metres of stacking distance to be able to stop clear of traffic on Gladstone Road. For a truck towing a trailer this is clearly inadequate. Such a consist turning left would have a reasonable chance of being able pull up without too much disruption to traffic provided they do not actually have to wait for a train. The situation for heavy vehicles turning right is quite different and much more dangerous. Because the consist will block the road, they have to be able to make a continuous movement from the right turn position to be able to cross all the way over the tracks without pulling up at the railway line. In order to do this they have to be able to see if a train is approaching from directly behind (if a southbound train is approaching this crossing) and judge its speed and assess whether they will have enough time to complete the movement. This has to be juggled with the gaps in traffic in the road as well, so we can readily understand that there is a lot of room for error.

The plot thickens a bit more when we look at the history of this location. This is part of the old rail yards, and there may have been a previous entrance to this site at the location of crossing 3344. On 1975 aerial photos there appears to be a gate there. It would seem that when Kiwirail had the yard subdivided for sale, they made this the principal entrance to the site. Here was the opportunity to assess the safety of the crossing and ensure it was suitable for purpose. It is particularly noteworthy that Kiwirail use an adjacent part of the site for loading ballast wagons, which are filled from large trucks, and that they have gone to a considerable effort to create a safe crossing and entrance to their site off a side road. This suggests they must be aware of the hazard of having an entrance off Gladstone Road in this area where the rail line and road are so close together.

There are other instances of dangerous level crossings that stand out and the question remains as to who is responsible for ensuring safety is achieved at sites and whether Kiwirail or the roading authorities are up to the task.

New Zealand’s questionable track record on level crossings

In my last post in which I talked about some of the issues I am interested in, I raised the question of level crossing safety in New Zealand. We have had a varied record going from a point where the issue was taken seriously enough to go for all out elimination on new railway construction, to the today where the national railway network operator and roading authorities are engaged in buck passing, obfuscating and whitewashing the safety issues at many of our level crossings.

A little history and I am writing from my own historical knowledge, not being aware at the moment of any reference sources I could quote from. Many of our early railway lines were built pre-1900 when the population of this country was much less and the only viable forms of transport were bicycles or horses and carts/traps. With the lower average vehicle speeds on the roads and fewer people, crossings were not so much of an issue. But with the introduction of motorised transport becoming a reality in the early 20th century, safety risks became a real consideration for the power that be and so real efforts were made to eliminate level crossings. A few examples in railway construction:

  • The duplication and raising of the railway from Dunedin to Mosgiel eliminated about fourteen level crossings, with every one of these replaced by over or under bridges. Although several bridges have since been removed, there have been no new level crossings built.
  • Similarly the construction of the Hutt Valley Branch, as it was then known, in the 1920s from Petone to Waterloo included a large number of bridge crossings and almost no level crossings. I would probably need to do more research to see if there were any level crossings along the route or whether any have been added – it is certainly the case that some exist today. This line became the main line through to the Wairarapa in the 1950s.
  • The East Coast Main Trunk railway from Hamilton through to Taneatua, as it was originally built, also had a significant number of bridge crossings, a lot more than would be put in today.
  • Overbridges were still a priority well into the 1930s when they were routinely installed on a number of relatively low traffic crossings, examples being at Prebbleton where one was installed crossing the Southbridge Branch on the approach into the town.

Unfortunately even with the volume of traffic that we have today, actively eliminating crossings as a key traffic safety objective has been significantly downgraded. It is good to see this being recognised with a change in government but there is undoubtedly many years of catchup needed to address the years of funding shortfalls for NTZA, local roading authorities (territorial councils) and Kiwirail.

In rural areas a key issue is at T intersections where the railway crosses the side road (the vertical bar of the T). Stacking distance is the major safety issue at these crossings. This is essentially the distance between the major intersection and the level crossing. Stacking distance has two major implications for level crossing safety:

  • Where motor vehicles are approaching the intersection from the side road, if the stacking distance is too short for a long vehicle, the rear of the vehicle may foul the railway line when the vehicle is stopped at the intersection.
  • Where motor vehicles are making a right turn from the main road onto the side road, if the traffic is fast and heavy on the main road, a driver has to try to drive as quickly as they can across a gap in the oncoming traffic to avoid a collision, and then only has a short distance in which to pull up at the level crossing and stop from whatever speed they had to undertake in order to cross the highway. Since the safety risk to motor vehicle traffic from a collision with oncoming traffic in attempting to make such a turn is already well recognised, it’s incomprehensible that the danger of having to speed across and then suddenly stop in a very short distance if the lights and bells are going at the crossing – which they may not be able to see going from the intersection, especially if the train is approaching from behind them – has not been recognised.

The second case in particular is relevant to a level crossing accident just days ago at Pongakawa School Road in the Bay of Plenty, which resulted in fatalities in the vehicle that was hit by a train on the crossing. This section of highway carries over 7000 vehicles per day, which is a significant volume. The level crossing has about 700 vehicles crossing it daily, and 12 trains. Because of this, Kiwirail would regard it as a lower priority, and it had bells and lights but not barriers. However, the local people in the area regarded it as a dangerous crossing and had been lobbying for barriers. According to Kiwirail’s own figures, barriers only cost $60,000-80,000 more than bells and lights on a crossing. The stacking distance at this crossing is about 20 metres, which really only provides for a truck being able to stop at the stop sign and be clear of the tracks. It doesn’t account for the fact that the truck will have to slow down as it goes over the tracks to be able to stop in time, nor does it account for a vehicle entering the side road from the highway being able to clear the highway and stop in time before the crossing. There are obvious measures that could be taken, and increasing the stacking distance is the most important of these, others include increasing the warning distance for bells and lights for approaching trains, putting lights and bells onto the main road right-turn lane, putting a speed limit on the section of the highway approaching and surrounding the intersection to make it easier and safer to right turn, or installing traffic lights at the intersection to enable right turns to be made safely with the oncoming traffic stopped, or perhaps banning right turns altogether at some of these intersections.

One of the biggest problems in level crossing design is simply that there is no clear delineation of responsibility for the design of crossings between Kiwirail and a roading authority. This highelighted xxx

In the course of researching this article there is now a belated recognition of level crossing safety that should have a greater priority by NZTA and Kiwirail with some of the articles linked below being illustrative of this:

So I guess I will need to follow up this one sometime soon with another post. Stay tuned 🙂