Managing passive level crossings on public and private roads in Ireland

Posted: 20 July 2014 | | No comments yet

Railway level crossings in Ireland are managed by Iarnród Éireann – Irish Rail, the national railway infrastructure manager, and supervised by the Railway Safety Commission, the national safety and regulatory authority. Both organisations work closely with one another to advance railway safety, which they recognise as a common goal. Donal Casey, Principal Inspector in the Railway Safety Commission provides further details.

Open private level crossing with stop line and red-green traffic lights. Courtesy of RSC, 2013.

The history of Irish railway level crossings is almost identical to that of the United Kingdom. They were established as retained rights-of-way under common railway legislation, and they are operated under similar rules.

On public carriageways, the railway company was legally required to employ ‘proper persons’ to open and shut the gates. The gates were required to ‘prevent cattle or horses passing along the road from entering upon the railway’1. These gates were closed across the railway when open to the road, and were at risk of being struck by a train thus endangering the operator. As technology developed, automatic protection systems with railway signals were installed. From the 1950s, comprehensive automation was introduced at many level crossings to reduced manning and thereby saving money. Level crossings with active protection provided by the railway company are known as active level crossings.

Incentive to improve level crossings

In contrast, the railway company was not legally required to control level crossing gates for access to private lands or on a road other than a public carriageway1. A railway accident in August 1965 gave the incentive for the railway company to improve these level crossings2. Although there has been much improvement, users must still operate the gates at most level crossings. Gates at user-worked level crossings open away from the railway to allow safe operation, and users are prosecuted and fined for leaving them open or unfastened. This system works well where the level crossing is lightly used or serves a defined place of work, e.g., a farm or factory. However, at road level crossings with frequent use, gates tend to be left open because motorists find it inconvenient to go back and shut the gates after driving across. Level crossings without active protection provided by the railway company are known as passive level crossings.

In the nineteenth century, to control misbehaviour where the railway company was not required to control the gates, railwaymen’s wives would ‘see that the gates are shut by users’ at a level crossing in return for free use of the railway cottage and a Christmas gratuity2. However, as motor cars became popular, this practice became unsustainable and it died out. Although surveillance cameras are now used by the railway infrastructure manager to identify offenders where misuse occurs, this reactive approach alone does not address the underlying issues.

Iarnród Éireann investment

Approximately €200 million has been spent by Iarnród Éireann since 1999 to address safety at level crossings. The number of level crossings in use in Ireland was reduced from almost one per line-km in 1999 to about 0.6 per line-km in 2013. Many passive level crossings were closed and those remaining were improved. Most manned level crossings and all automatic level crossings (including those with warning lights only and those with half-barrier protection) were upgraded. They are now equipped with manually-controlled full barriers and rail-side protection, and are remotely supervised from a control centre where one person can control 20 level crossings.

Around 43 user-worked level crossings remain on public roads, with a resulting risk of about one user fatality every five years. About 108 user-worked level crossings remain on private roads, with a resulting risk of about one user fatality every eight years. Level crossing collisions also pose a risk to persons travelling on trains. Iarnród Éireann has a bespoke Level Crossing database and Risk Model to help it to evaluate and manage risk at level crossings, and it continually reviews and improves the database and the relevant parameters.


European Railway Agency statistics3 indicate that traffic on the Irish network is relatively light, with an average of 11,000 trains passing over each line each year. Most of the lines have a single track with bi-directional working, and the number of level crossings per line-km is close to the EU average.

These statistics indicate that the ‘operational fatality rate’ per million train-km at level crossings in Ireland is relatively low: it is equivalent to that experienced in Italy and Norway, but greater than that experienced in the UK.

In 2012, the Railway Safety Commission recommended that the railway should either remove user-worked level crossings from public roads or else bring them under railway control, while recognising that sufficient funds may not be available in the short-term to achieve this objective. Meanwhile, the railway and the road authorities were encouraged to take appropriate measures to improve the safety of existing level crossings. The Railway Safety Commission also set down action points to guide the improvement of safety at user-worked level crossings on public roads4. Applying these actions to user-worked level crossings on private roads would also be beneficial.

In particular, the Railway Safety Commission asked Iarnród Éireann to address risk prioritisation, risk data calibration, viewing times of trains, skewed crossings, user guidance, communication and reference systems, train horns, train driver training, visual clutter, road signage and markings, vehicle grounding risk, telephone points and road traffic diversion. Other possible improvements include pedestrian warning lights, additional whistle boards, rail-side indication of open gates, improved train visibility, self-closing pedestrian gates, and road hump reduction. Risk should be considered from the point-of-view of the various users, including drivers of different types of vehicle.

level crossing safety

Remotely supervised manually-controlled barrier crossing with rail-side protection. Courtesy of RSC, 2013

At skewed crossings, the crossing distance is longer for motor vehicles and the motorist’s view of approaching trains can be obstructed by the vehicle frame or by the side-view mirrors.

Drivers of large slow vehicles are expected to telephone the railway supervisor to get permission to cross the railway. However, it may sometimes be possible to divert such vehicles from user-worked crossings on public roads to a safer crossing point.

Road markings on public roads may be laid only by or on behalf of the Road Authority. Stop lines are required at public road level crossings and must be at right angles to the direction of vehicular travel5. In 2012, Iarnród Éireann laid stop lines at user-worked road level crossings where there is a sealed surface. The lines are painted two metres from the rail to mark the decision point for the motorist. This simple measure had an immediate and positive effect on road user behaviour. Iarnród Éireann further developed its standardised approach to the layout and signage at user-worked level crossings, and it introduced a system of line-side markers to show where vegetation should be controlled to maintain the user’s views of approaching trains.

In 2013, the Road Safety Authority, with the cooperation of the Railway Safety Commission and Iarnród Éireann, revised and clarified the rules for railway level crossing use6, and published these rules in a separate booklet. Iarnród Éireann is also becoming more involved in the International Level Crossing Awareness Day (ILCAD) and is further developing its own public safety awareness programme. Stakeholders are consulted at the interdepartmental Road-Rail Safety working group.

Requirements for the design, supply and installation of warning systems

In 2014, Iarnród Éireann published its requirements for the design, supply and installation of warning systems at user-worked level crossings on single lines on its network. Its objective is to provide the level crossing user with an appropriate alert of the approach of trains and advise when it is not safe to cross. The system must have fail-safe modes to further alert users if it is in degraded mode and must advise them on a safe course of action to take. This project will need funding and it will depend on safety authorisation by the Railway Safety Commission.

The Railway Safety Commission and Iarnród Éireann are updating and consolidating the railway infrastructure rules on level crossings, with the intention of adopting these as national rules.

The Railway Safety Commission recognises that level crossing users do not intentionally place themselves in danger, and it sees a ‘human factors approach’ as central to the management of safety. It encourages Iarnród Éireann and the road authorities to address situational and communication risks at level crossings so as to discourage user errors, mistakes and risky behaviour and promote safe behaviour.


  1. Railway Clauses Consolidation Act 1845, sections 47, 61 and 68
  2. Technical information sheet MW50, Civil Engineering Department, Córas Iompair Éireann, 1983
  3. E-RAIL database, European Railway Agency
  4. User worked level crossings on public roads – a review, Railway Safety Commission, 2012
  5. Traffic signs Manual, Department of Transport, November 2010, sections 7.1.14 and 7.15.1
  6. Rules of the Road, Road Safety Authority, 2013.

Donal Casey is a Principal Inspector in the Railway Safety Commission, the national safety authority for railways in Ireland. He worked for Iarnród Éireann, the national railway company, after qualifying in Mechanical Engineering in 1981, and he joined the Railway Inspectorate in 2000. He holds a Master’s degree in Railway Systems Engineering. Donal represents Ireland at the EC’s Railway Interoperability and Safety Committee and at the UNECE’s Group of Experts on Safety at Level Crossings.

Related topics