…the risks don’t stand still

Posted: 25 May 2017 | | No comments yet

The industry has come a long way in improving safety at UK level crossings in the last seven years. This has come from a concerted focus from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and Network Rail becoming more rigorous in its approach. It’s resulted in over 1,000 crossings closing and improved safety statistics, but as the ORR’s Chief Inspector of Railways and Director of Railway Safety Ian Prosser explains, it is an ongoing process and more work is required to forge ahead.

Prior to 2009, level crossing risk management was inconsistent within Network Rail. ORR’s prosecutions of Network Rail over Gipsy Lane and Elsenham level crossings confirmed that failings in risk management contributed to fatalities. The issues centred on poor ownership of level crossings and risk assessments.

ORR has worked with Network Rail to drive changes in its approach to level crossings. This has been a gradual process, involving a step-change in ways of working and procedures; the most important of which has been the establishment of a ‘Level Crossing Manager’. This means that every level crossing in the country has someone responsible for its management and keeping risk assessments current.

The way in which risk assessments are created and acted upon has also changed significantly. With the introduction of the Level Crossing Manager, these assessments are able to have more qualitative risk assessments than previously. The previous risk assessments had used a more numerical system which did not always clearly define the risks, making it difficult to properly assess which level crossings should be prioritised. This was a factor explored in the Gipsy Lane case. The move to qualitative assessments has increased the industry’s understanding of crossing use and they are now able to put in place the correct specification of risk control measures at each site. Better assessments means they are better equipped to identify and focus on higher risk level crossings.

It’s been a process and has taken time, but Network Rail has improved. Our regular monitoring and reporting shows that these changes have made a positive difference; the harm posed by level crossings to users and railway operations has fallen gradually since 2010-2011 and there were the lowest levels of serious events at crossings in 2015-2016.

It’s important to keep moving forward and learn from key prosecutions and there is still much work to be done. Our evidence shows that near-miss events involving pedestrians increased by 7% last year, continuing a gradual upward trend over the last decade. These have increasingly involved passive and particularly foot crossings where the sightlines are inadequate and users rely on hearing a train horn to know that a train is approaching. As such, these are a current focus for us and industry. We are working with Network Rail and the Department for Transport (DfT) to embrace technology and implement improvements to signage and warning systems at both private and public level crossings. Network Rail now has in place a good, robust and focussed level crossing strategy which addresses these issues. The plan includes:

  • Upgrading all passive crossings with the installation of active warning systems
  • Prioritising the elimination of passive crossings on high-speed lines or at stations
  • Improving underfoot conditions and signage including the marking of danger zones to raise user’s knowledge and situational awareness, reducing human error
  • Developing and rolling out a full barrier automatic crossing with obstacle detection to reduce pedestrian error and road vehicle user violations
  • Prioritising the removal of automatic half barrier crossings near to stations and schools.

ORR must now make sure Network Rail implements the strategy successfully, and try to support new initiatives, because the risks don’t stand still. ORR is looking to change the way it works to help Network Rail progress its strategy more effectively, particularly in relation to processing Orders. A main way in which Network Rail reduces risk at level crossing is by closing or upgrading them and commissioning new technologies. The ring-fenced funds for this and robust plans have led to an increase in upgrades to level crossings and therefore the number of Orders we process has risen significantly too; around 250 last year. We’re looking at ways to improve this process and reduce the regulatory burden. Orders are currently quite prescriptive and we’re looking at ways to bring them within the Health and Safety at Work Act. This would allow for the approach to be more tailored for that particular crossing. It would also have the effect of more clearly placing the emphasis of responsibility onto Network Rail.

We’ve been extremely active in pressing for improvements and positive changes have been made. We’re aware of the challenges ahead as closing crossings becomes more challenging and we’ll remain focussed on this issue and work with industry to continuously improve.


…the risks don’t stand stillIan Prosser is responsible for the ORR’s Railway Safety Directorate and has also been Member of the ORR Board since September 2008. Ian was educated at Imperial College where he attained a first-class honours degree in chemical engineering, followed by a Master of Philosophy in control engineering and operations research at Cambridge University. He has worked in safety critical industries for more than 34 years. Prior to joining ORR, Ian spent eight years in the rail industry, working for Amey Rail and Amey Operations as both Technical Director and Quensh Director and then Metronet Rail, where he lead the role in safety management; he was a Director of both infraco companies.

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