The unrelenting struggle to try and make level crossings safer
Could autonomous technology and sat-nav systems help to reduce accidents at level crossings?
I once worked on the railways in southern Britain as a train driver and was shocked by the Ladbroke Grove collision near London Paddington station on 5 December 1999. This experience caused me to study the backgrounds of large transport accidents, in which level crossing accidents ominously figured and in which professional vehicle operators were involved. In turn it all led to writing articles, blogs and books; with Stanley Hall I co-wrote the 2008 issue of Level Crossings, followed by An Unexpected End to the Journey in 2016 (which also discusses a few international noteworthy level crossing accidents). Recently this issue went live again during the 2019 ILCAD conference in Amersfoort, NL, followed by an invitation to appear in a French TV documentary about the fatal 14-12-2017 AHB accident at Millas that Alain Autruffe also mentions in his article in the Level Crossing Safety issue of Global Railway Review volume 26 issue 02, 2020. My reason to react on the mentioned articles (and please, do not take this as ridiculing or criticising the hard and often thankless task facing anyone involved in the uphill struggle to improve level crossing safety) is the fact that for many years I heard these arguments and saw the measures devised to improve level crossing safety. Anne Zwiers informs us in the same publication, however, that in a level crossing safety front-runner like The Netherlands, the fatalities nevertheless are on the up again. Not because of the occasional loaded tourist coach or bus skewing the fatality numbers; the figures represent separate accidents. It is worrying and very costly.
Banning the use of the hand-held mobile phone whilst driving is an eminently justified safety measure, yet many people who are addicted to it are unlikely to change.
Bram de Saedeleer mentions categories of reasons why road users (from pedestrians to truck and bus drivers) get involved in level crossing accidents. For instance, pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists too often allow the attention needed to negotiate level crossings safely to get distracted by handling a smartphone. Whilst on a modern train the passengers very rarely are endangered when hitting these categories of road users, things differ dramatically when road freight vehicles are involved which are heavy, or loaded with explosive or flammable cargoes. There are, however, some road-user issues that cannot just be shrugged away but contribute to accidents nevertheless. Logistics operators, for instance, need their drivers in telephone contact with the despatch office as this may turn a contractually important but loss-making trip into a profitable one because an empty vehicle may be diverted en-route to pick up a non-scheduled consignment that just became available. Many business motorists en-route are equally dependent on telephone contact with their home-base, for efficient use of time and service to their clients. Banning the use of the hand-held mobile phone whilst driving is an eminently justified safety measure, yet many people who are addicted to it are unlikely to change. The continuing use of alcohol or drugs at the wheel shows why.
A different approach
I would like to discuss a different approach to tackle the matter. The issue here is no longer one of how to make AHB level crossings safer, simply because a modern overall well-designed and equipped AHB level crossing is safe and the only available next step toward greater safety is removal. The issue now becomes one of changing the approach to acceptable road user behaviour. Because if every road user just stuck to good practice there would not be a problem: so devise an external way to make road users stop vehicles or themselves. There are four main issues here: primarily there is the ambition to run more frequent and faster train services, which is incompatible with operating busy level crossings. Secondarily, safety on level crossings has to become less dependent on road users to uphold safety with their questionable mental application, aptitude and skill to the job. Thirdly, it is impossible to clear all level crossings from the various rail networks: they’ll be with us as long as there is rail and road traffic. Fourth, enforcing good road user behaviour is costly and demands high numbers of staff monitoring and ready to take action. These simply are not available: the risk of getting arrested whilst committing a level crossing offence remains fairly low, even with automatic traffic cameras. Moreover, this approach hardly addresses the problem of the smartphone zombie anyway.
The issue now becomes one of changing the approach to acceptable road user behaviour. Because if every road user just stuck to good practice there would not be a problem.
Question: What is it that made the excellent present-day railway safety possible? The answer is Automatic Train Protection (ATP). Such systems monitor adherence to the permitted speed limit and the reaction to signalling aspects, fully independent from the train driver. Most importantly, they intervene by stopping the train when set parameters to act are breached. What the system does then, is demonstrating its autonomous independence: when it intervenes it temporarily takes responsibility for safety out of the hands of the person at the controls. Just what we want for the car.
Something similar is in fact possible with cars: systems that autonomously intervene or execute certain tasks are available on many brands. They’ll slow you down if the vehicles in front do that, or when sudden obstructions (falling trees during storms, children at play) block your way. They’ll operate your head and tail-lights, your windshield wipers, maintain your speed, keep you in lane and reverse-park your car. All autonomous (driver-independent) steering and control applications, brakes and throttle included, functionally merged with satellite-navigation and radar applications. As far as the autonomous level crossing stop application is concerned, you don’t need that much more to make it able to pick up and react on a danger signal emitted locally by level crossing equipment when a train approaches. The technical issue is fail-safe and robust reliability; the much harder political issues are the international agreements on how the systems will work to safely maintain international traffic. There are, however, transportation precedents for that: something similar is an aspect of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) and its ATP offshoot European Train Control System (ETCS) in any of its guises. It took a lot of time to get where we are, however.
These in-car safety systems must be highly tamper-proof, however, as no doubt the stunt and speed-freak car-driver version of the human race will find their enjoyment badly curtailed. No doubt this fraternity will spend many nights of intense application to finding the way to bypass these hindrances. If the system as a result finds failure within itself, therefore, it should automatically restrict maximum speed to 40km/h and display clearly visible obstacle lights to indicate that it is being driven at low speed due to failure of the vehicle supervision.
Such equipment is no longer rocket science. It is being tested and has a number of potential other advantages. Primarily it would stop cars and road freight vehicles before they endanger trains, which could even be done at passively protected level crossing’s or road crossings. The autonomous system also may intervene if the motorist drives unsafely when tired, is distracted by e.g. a child in the back seat, when making a phone call or feels like a little zig-zag exercise round the AHB barriers today. The system, coupled with sat-nav, may be used to stop large vehicles from getting stuck in unsuitable road areas, such as at a T-junction at less than the vehicle length from a level crossing.
And for the zombie types: in Belgium, smartphones already are being tested with a warning system for level crossings.