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.

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.