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.