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Level crossing practices worldwide

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With all the improvements made to control and communications systems, the railway has never been safer. However, despite many initiatives to improve technology and operation, level crossings remain a significant safety risk. The reason is obvious: it involves people who are not part of the rail industry and thus not subject to rail safety regulations – the general public, well known for acting irrationally and well capable of doing stupid things.

It is a problem not confined to just the UK, so how is this risk viewed around the world? A recent seminar organised by the IRSE membership in Japan chose, as one of its topics, a comparative study of current level crossing practices from four different continents. The results had some common themes despite the different types of railways where level crossings exist.


Takashi Kawano from JR East informed me that this heavily populated country (17 million people in Tokyo alone) abounds with level crossings on its original rail network. The 3’6” gauge has British origins and still serves all parts of the country. The more famous Shinkansen network, built up from the mid 1960s, is standard gauge and has no such crossings, nor would these be a practical proposition given the speeds of up to 300kph and very frequent services.

The legacy element is significant – 34,000 crossings nationwide with 6,987 of these on the JR East network that includes Tokyo. Many of these are in city areas where closure times to road traffic can be a significant percentage in every hour. 6,279 crossings have alarms and barriers, 208 just an alarm and 500 have no warning/protection except static signage.

Since 1988, over 2,000 high risk crossings have been closed with consequent accidents reducing from 247 in 1987 to 44 in 2014. Motorist-related accidents are declining but pedestrian incidents are on the up.

The basic principles of crossing operation are: four seconds of warning, six seconds for boom lowering, 20 seconds for all four barriers to be proved down, 36 second arrival time for train at maximum line speed. Despite the narrow gauge, speeds equating to European standards are quite common, so closure times for slower trains can be significant – especially if a station stop is included in the sequence.

Safety and operational enhancements are part of the ongoing process. The main thrust is a rationalisation of warning times as the public is demanding that these be shortened. Where stopping trains at stations are involved, the addition of an extra track balise will delay the lowering sequence. More generally, the use of obstacle detection is being deployed, three types being used:

» Loop coil underground that detects a vehicle but not a pedestrian;

» Laser beam at low level;

» 3D laser/radar at both high and low level with a scan rate of every 0.5 seconds – these are easy to install and are resistant to fog and snow.

None of these solutions are linked to the clearance of a signal and thus the detection remains operational until the train has passed. A ‘hand plunger’, operated by the signaller, can be used if an obstacle appears after the closure procedure is complete. This initiates an alarm to the train driver. One must remember that Japanese society is more disciplined than in Europe or elsewhere and incidents of misuse are rare.

1,139 crossings have been equipped with the 3D system, achieving an average reduction in closure time of 22 per cent and 48 per cent as a maximum. A national campaign for level crossing safety, targets different age groups, with children and elderly people being known to be most at risk.


Rod Muttram from Fourth Insight Ltd, with information provided by Wabtec Xorail, described the position in the USA, which has 212,000 level crossings that cause 67 per cent of all train- related accidents.

With the emphasis being on long-haul freight rather than high-density passenger, the crossings are often in remote areas with a long time between trains. 36 per cent of crossings (76,000) have no active warning system other than fixed signs. Most other crossings have only lights and bells but with no barriers.

Double-stacked container freight trains up to two miles long take typically three minutes to pass over a crossing, and 1.6km to stop from line speed. Couple this with long and large road vehicles, and one can see the temptation to take risks to get through before the train arrives.

Often, the railroad was built first, with subsequent roads being constructed alongside with many side turns to cross the railway, thus creating opportunities for careless drivers to be unaware of the risks.

An awareness campaign has been in existence since 1972 which has succeeded, over time, in reducing the accident rate by 43 per cent. $300 million has been spent at 330 crossings to interconnect warning lights with adjacent road traffic lights. In some states it is compulsory for buses to stop before a crossing if the road ahead is not clear. Still, accidents occur. As recent as March 2016, an accident involving a propane- carrying lorry caused a huge fire to occur.

The FRA (Federal Rail Administration) has now linked level crossing legislation with line speeds: less than 110mph, level crossings are permitted; between 110 and 125mph, limitations exist as to the type of crossing and associated protection system that can be used; greater than 125mph, no level crossings are permitted. New designs of crossing protection system are emerging with five basic types, each based on modular ‘easy assembly’ principles with full factory testing taking place before shipment to site. A typical price of $160,000 for such an installation is much cheaper than comparable prices in the UK.

Various technologies for obstacle detection are being tried, none of which have been wholly successful. Effort is being put into developing wireless activation of crossing protection systems to cater for different train speeds and the monitoring of speed differentials.

For passenger trains that stop at an adjacent station, the inhibiting of the crossing sequence is also proposed.


Peter Symons (Triton Pty Ltd) detailed the many standards that impact on level crossing safety – the National Rail Safety Act, the State Rail Safety Act and Workplace Standards. These lead to different practices between States that causes confusion and a joining-up process is underway to promote common standards. Any serious accident is already nationally investigated.

Across the country, there are 23,000 crossings and accidents have caused 200 deaths in the last six years but, by 2014, only one fatality occurred. As in America, much of the network is long-haul freight but the major conurbations have intensive commuter networks. In the remoter parts, only passive protection (only signs) is provided, but more crossings are being converted to a form of active detection. These come in three main forms: flashing lights with bells and signs, active lights and half barrier booms, and pedestrian crossings with locked gates. There are some four-barrier crossings but they are few in number.

Risk assessment matrices are employed to determine the type of equipment to be used. Warning times are typically 25 seconds for just lights, 30 seconds for lights and booms, 19 seconds for pedestrian crossings. If the crossing is on a diagonal with the roadway, then longer warning times prevail.

Human factor problems abound as elsewhere; driving around booms, getting trapped on the crossing hence the need for an escape route, seasonal wheat lines that only operate during harvest time. Road-rail vehicles are a particular problem as they do not reliably operate track circuits and can cause axle counter miscounts if the start of the journey is on a crossing.

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Level crossing predictor technology is in limited use but has to take account of accelerating trains and is not approved for electrified lines. CCTV monitoring is used on occasions but obstacle detection is not yet approved. Unsafe failures are mainly caused by SPADs and the failure of the crossing sequence to initiate.

A low cost warning system was developed but failed to get approval because lawyers considered low-cost equals low-safety, an unrealistic conclusion. The favoured way forward is to build bridges but this has huge cost implications.

Europe and ETCS

The situation with level crossings in Europe may be better known than elsewhere. Wim Coenraad from Movares in the Netherlands explained the many practices that abound in the different countries: fully automatic but linked to the signalling system, CCTV supervision, automatic half barriers, no barriers with warning and also just signage. Improvement and modernisation is focussing on minimising closure times, replacement with bridges, use of obstacle detection, LED warning lights for road traffic, aluminium barriers and using electronic acoustic devices in place of bells. Of these, minimising the time that crossings are closed to road traffic has the most urgency and several new innovations are to be expected in the near future.

One of these will be linked with the deployment of ETCS. In Denmark, where nationwide roll out of ERTMS is underway, the resulting capacity improvements must not be undermined by restrictive level crossing operation. A new method of crossing activation is being devised using TMS (Traffic Management System), ETCS train position info and the signalling interlocking. No activation will be triggered by track circuits or axle counters.

Upon a train making a movement authority (MA) request, TMS will check whether the train timing involves a level crossing in the route. If yes, the TMS issues a crossing activation instruction optimised for the crossing characteristics. The MA will only initially be valid up to a marker board situated before the crossing. Once the activation is complete and the barriers are proved down, the MA will be extended to beyond the crossing. Speed profiles are shown on the driver’s MMI (man-machine interface- or display screen) plus a symbol that shows the level crossing status.

The system has to take account of a second train coming and situations where traffic queues across the crossing might occur because of road traffic lights. Consideration has also to be given to the risks of radio black spots, how to link several level crossings in short succession, late route setting and what happens if a train increases speed before the crossing. An activation time of 47 seconds is likely. The system is still under development and is not yet in service, but it is an indication as to how level crossings may be controlled in the ERTMS era.

The IRSE presentations showed that, while operation and technologies differ widely across the world, the safety risks and the demand for minimised closure times for crossing users are a common theme. With an ever-growing world population, the associated rise in road traffic and the pressure to increase capacity on the railway, level crossings are seen as an encumbrance for all parties.

Many will be replaced by bridges in the years to come but, at some locations, this solution will never be economically feasible or the physical onsite constraints will make it impossible. It is up to engineers of all disciplines to come up with ideas that optimise safety whilst keeping closure to road traffic down to an absolute minimum.

The signs are there that this is happening.




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