User-worked crossings (UWC) are intersections where a railway crosses a right of way such as a road on private land, a footpath or a bridleway. Any gates or barriers provided often need to be operated manually, with some crossings requiring users to telephone a signaller to check that it is safe to cross.
The rate of collisions and fatalities at these types of level crossings is higher when compared to other level crossings when the usage rate is taken into account. Often, the only technology to assist the user is a sign informing them how to operate the crossing. However, work is now underway to improve the signs and reduce the risk of such crossings.
When the railway was first built, the former railway companies were required to provide access across the railway for those affected. Where this resulted in the construction of a level crossing, it was operated by the user, and unless the landowner has agreed to give up their rights to use it, it is still the responsibility of Network Rail to maintain the crossing for the safe benefit of all users. The owners of the land and those who also have a legitimate right to use the affected road also have a legal right to use the crossing.
User-worked crossings were also required to maintain access between lands severed by the railway where a roadway or track did not previously exist. The most common being the field-to-field crossing. Along with footpath and bridleway crossings, these types of crossing present one of the greatest safety risks to today’s railway, with the user responsible for making sure it is safe to use the crossing and for opening or shutting any barrier or gates provided.
For many years, users of UWCs were generally local and familiar with the operation of the crossing. Trains were also slower and noisier than they are today.
In recent times, the profile of users has diversified significantly. They are no longer just the local landowner, farmer, postman or shopkeeper. Users now include a wide range of couriers, delivery drivers and members of the public, many of whom are unfamiliar with how to use these types of level crossing safely and who may not have English as their first language.
Users are also likely to be ‘connected’, using headphones or texting on their phones. They may have mobility issues or be riders on horses or bikes. Tractors are faster and drivers are likely to be in noise-reducing cabs, with the heating or air-conditioning fan running, and be incentivised to move quickly to increase productivity.
On top of all this, trains are now often more frequent and are considerably quieter.
There are around 2,500 such private crossings in Great Britain, representing more than a third of all level crossings on the network. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) published a report on its investigation into a fatal collision in October 2017 involving a high-speed train and a delivery van at a private crossing at a farm in Teynham, Kent. This recommended that the government, in conjunction with the Office of Rail and Road and Network Rail, should review and revise signs at private crossings so that they clearly and unambiguously convey information and instructions on how to use the crossings correctly.
The technology available to the rail industry to manage level crossings and enhance protection has also developed in recent years, such as through technical advances in miniature stop lights (MSLs). However, the signage at crossings has not developed at the same rate, and this presents a potential safety risk to members of the public. To improve safety at these crossings, Network Rail is now working closely with the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) to revise and make improvements to the signage provided at UWCs.
RSSB report T983
The work started with the production of T983 – Research into signs at private level crossings – by RSSB. This considered, from first principles, the types of signs that should be presented to users at UWCs, including those at field-to-field farm crossings. The project explored which signs and signals best convey the particular points of information that users need when approaching these crossings.
It made use of the methods and findings of a recently completed project examining signs and signals at public road crossings, and drew on good practice in signage in general and in the railway environment in particular. Existing signs at level crossings were compared with good practice and, where it was judged that they were not the best solutions, other signs were considered.
The project focused on proposed improvements to signs and markings, and carried out an initial evaluation of the proposed improvements and identified barriers to implementation. It was identified that users did not always associate the existing user-worked crossing sign with the crossing being approached. The sign was too ‘wordy’ and did not use a pictorial representation of a crossing.
As a result of the research three types of draft signage were proposed with simple, clear and unambiguous instructions, and making good use of pictorial icons:
- Universal user-worked crossing ‘triangle’ sign. The proposed sign, unlike the existing signs, shows the three separate crossing elements as icons: a train, a gate and a railway track.
- High level instruction ‘blue’ signs to inform users to ‘Stop look and listen’ or to ‘Stop and telephone’.
- Detailed instruction signs. These would have a mixture of illustrations and text to clearly instruct users.
T983 identified that it was important that the proposed signs were legible and well understood, or it could make matters worse instead of better. It recognised that, while the proposals may be clear when viewed on the desk or on a computer screen, trials were recommended to compare the legibility of the designs with the current instruction signs.
Network Rail is now involved with all stakeholders to take forward the benefits of the T983 report and to implement a ‘root and branch’ review of the UWC signs proposals in a systematic way, to establish where and how the improvements can be made. The three proposed signs produced by RSSB were reviewed in workshops at which specialists, including route level crossing managers, representatives from DfT and ORR and with signage experts, discussed everything from level crossing risk to ergonomics.
The proposed signs were produced by Royal British Legion Industries (RBLI), then installed and trialled at a user-worked level crossing ‘mock up’ site which had already been established by the ORR and Network Rail at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire. This is a facility used as a training resource for those organisations who regularly come into contact with user-worked level crossings.
Five different crossing types were evaluated, including common and complex types of UWC. These were non-telephone UWC, telephone UWC, power operated gate opener (POGO), MSL and a POGO MSL crossing.
The site consists of approximately 12 metres of track that leads nowhere and with no trains involved, but it is so realistic many visitors believe it is a real railway. Most of the required infrastructure was already in place, although a POGO had to be installed. The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) had assisted RSSB in the T983 report with virtual reality modelling, so TRL was also employed by Network Rail to facilitate the trials and to provide continuity with the process.
Initially, 15 different users per day for three days of all ages, gender and abilities were involved with the trials in April, with another similar trial a few weeks later. The users were people who were all unfamiliar with any type of UWC. Some people went over each crossing type as pedestrians and others as car drivers.
One initial finding was that people used the crossings in various ways, even if all of them were safe. Users were fitted with head cameras and asked to complete a questionnaire – all the captured data will be subject to qualitative and quantitative analysis before the recommendations are finalised. This will include the format, the size of the signs, font and icons, together with a Welsh version. One change to the T983 report proposals already identified is that the icons on the signs will be at the top and read left to right, rather than vertically on the left.
Further trials are planned with users who are familiar with the operations of UWCs.
The first operational installation trial is planned for Jacky Duffin Wood crossing, a UWC POGO MSL on a freight line on the London North East route.
Once all the captured data is analysed and evaluated, the plan is to republish the Network Rail standard for level crossing signage, and any other standards affected, with the new signs available from early 2020. They will be then deployed on the various Network Rail routes, using their local knowledge and crossing risk profiles and liaising with project teams which may be doing work in a particular area.
New legislation will also be required to amend the Private Crossings (Signs and Barriers) Regulations 1996, however Network Rail is working closely with the DfT so that there should be nothing to prevent the new designs being brought onto the network in 2020 via a nationwide trial authorisation process.
The new signs will be enforceable during the nationwide trial period.
This article first appeared in Issue 177 of Rail Engineer, Aug/Sep 2019.