There are approximately 6,500 level crossings in use on the national mainline rail network in Great Britain, with another estimated 1,000 to 1,500 on heritage and minor railways. They include many different types and configurations and present one of the major safety risks to today’s railway.
Any change or modification to the method of operation must only be done after a suitable and sufficient risk assessment has been undertaken. Sometimes what appears a simple modification needs careful consideration, consultation with all stakeholders and the approval of regulatory authorities and standard owners.
Chaffers Lane level crossing is located at Bakerhouse Road, Nelson, on the single branch line between Gannow Junction and Colne. It is unusual as it is a train crew operated full-barrier (TOB) crossing operated by the train crew and not by a crossing operator working for the infrastructure controller.
The procedure involves the train coming to a halt at a fixed stop board and operation of a pull cord by the driver from his cab window to start the crossing sequence. There are no protecting signals, only a St George’s Cross board to provide advance warning of the crossing.
A plunger in a locked cupboard for use in the event of a failure of the pull cord is also provided. Once the crossing sequence is complete a Driver’s White Light (DWL) indicates, allowing the train to proceed, with the train driver responsible for checking the crossing is clear and that no one is trapped within the fully closed barriers. Once clear of the crossing the barriers raise automatically and a Barrier Up (BU) indication is shown to the driver.
The line speed is 50mph but, with every train having to stop 25 metres from the crossing, the actual speed is much lower. A census conducted over nine days recorded 497 vehicles and 74 pedestrians using the crossing during the busiest two-hour period.
The crossing is a rare example of its type remaining on the UK network and the method of operation at Chaffers Lane has a number of issues.
A train has to come to a halt before the crossing sequence is initiated by the pull cord. This means the train is at a stand for up to a minute while the crossing sequence and barrier lowering takes place and, because this is on a single line branch route, it has to take place twice for each return trip.
There have been reports of dog excrement being placed on the pull cord wire by vandals! This has resulted in drivers having to use a stick to operate the wire, or in further delay while they leave the train to operate the plunger. Hardly acceptable for a railway in the twenty-first century.
In 2011 a serious incident occurred when a brick was thrown through the rear cab of a stationary train, luckily the cab was empty at the time with the driver in the front cab and the conductor within the train.
The current standard for a crossing such as Chaffers Lane would be replacement with automatic full barriers with obstacle detection (known as MCB-OD) and to provide protecting signals. However, the level crossing equipment was in a good condition and with good spares availability, it was last renewed in 1989 and was not due for renewal until 2021.
It was identified that converting the operation of the crossing by the use of a treadle would reduce or remove the problem with the driver having to operate the pull cord. Although this appeared to be a simple modification it created the following issues.
The crossing would be no longer be a TOB crossing but would become an automatic crossing, however it would not comply with the standards for an automatic crossing and both the Safety Directorate and Network Rail policy is not to introduce any new automatic crossings unless obstacle detection and protecting signals are provided. This would be a major scheme and the level of investment could not be justified.
Would the automatic operation increase the line speed and therefore increase the risk profile of the crossing? This would clearly be unacceptable.
How would it be confirmed that the crossing was clear before allowing the train to pass over the crossing and what other hazards may be created by the new method of operation?
Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) Safety Directorate approval, together with Network Rail and Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) derogations to standards would also be required.
The first step was to discuss the proposal with the ORR Safety Directorate. The ORR encourages innovative solutions to level crossing problems and they were supportive of the proposal in principle. As in all cases, this would be subject to a suitable and sufficient risk assessment demonstrating that due consideration has been given to safety and that the risks have been reduced so far as is reasonably practicable. Network Rail and operators of heritage and light rail also have explicit legal duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) to manage risks arising from level crossings on their network.
All stakeholders were consulted, both within and outside Network Rail, with mixed responses regarding concerns in respect to compliance with standards and importing additional risk.
The removal of crossings is always the first option to be considered.
The closure of level crossings is not easy and requires attention to many factors, for example the practicalities of replacing the crossing by a bridge or underpass, the legal arrangements for closing rights of way and importing new risks such as increasing the likelihood of trespass. The main approaches to this crossing are on an incline. On the west side of the crossing is the main A56 (Leeds Road) and between the main road and the crossing are a number of properties. On the east side of the crossing there is a large housing estate and a small number of industrial units. It was therefore identified that closure was not an option at Chaffers Lane due to its location in a built-up area with no alternative crossing nearby.
The risk assessment then looked at all the factors involved at the crossing. This included whether the risk profile had changed since the crossing was last renewed, or would change with the modified method of operation. The factors included changing traffic levels (either road, pedestrian and/or rail), different levels of usage, if a new school or housing development had been built nearby, and whether different user behaviours had been observed.
After careful consideration and a number of workshops, it was identified that the risk profile would still be acceptable with the modified method of operation.
The option proposed was to remove the pull cord and to initiate the crossing sequence using a two arm, bi-directional treadle. This would take away the requirement for the train driver to stop and lean out his window to pull the cord. It would also give an advantage of the crossing sequence starting up to 20 seconds earlier, reducing the consequences of a signal passed at danger (SPAD). The facility to halt the barriers descending using the cord would be removed, however this was not used by drivers or even known about. The plunger in a locked cupboard would remain and allow the driver to raise the barriers if needed.
The treadle would be positioned so that the train has to come to a stand before the end of the crossing sequence and await the DWL. The stop boards would be replaced with altered words reading ‘Obtain white light before proceeding’. This would ensure that a train would proceed across the crossing at the same speed and the driver would still be responsible for checking that the crossing is clear.
The sequence would be that a train approaches, receives a horn from the AWS, sights the St George’s board and the driver starts service braking. The train operates the treadle and the crossing sequence starts; three seconds of amber lights, five seconds of red lights, seven seconds for the entrance barriers to lower followed by another seven seconds for the exit barriers to lower. The train would arrive at the stop board before the end of this sequence and come to a complete stop. The DWL indicator illuminates, the driver checks that the crossing is clear and the train moves off. The train passes over and clears the crossing and the barriers rise. The driver sees the BU indicator confirming that the barriers are fully in the raised position and accelerates away.
The proposal was in conflict with Network Rail Standard NR/L2/SIG/11201, which states “the crossing is operated by train crew. Special plungers or pull cords are provided that are accessible from the cab”. A derogation was submitted and approved by the Network Rail Professional Head of Signalling.
Since the TOB crossing was commissioned in its present form in 1989, the stop boards had been located at 25 metres from the crossing edge, although GK/RT0192 mandates a minimum distance of 50 metres. It was not proposed to alter the position of the stop boards as this would result with the barriers being down longer, increasing the risk of road users trying to beat the barriers lowering and defeat the objective of decreasing the train journey time. A derogation against GK/RT0192 was submitted in June 2014 to RSSB, along with the new method of operation. This was approved with confirmation that all other arrangements (St George’s board, barriers up indicators, road profile, etc.) would remain unaltered.
The risk assessment had identified that the risk of blocking back was low, as there was no history of blocking back on the crossing and an audible warning is given when the crossing is initiated and road users have the opportunity of leaving the crossing as the escape barriers lower last.
However, with the design completed, material ordered and a commissioning date planned, there was a late request from the ORR to provide a yellow box at the crossing to mitigate against any blocking back. This required a redesign of the ground plan.
The lesson therefore is to consult the ORR not only at the early stage, but throughout such a project to ensure any request for additional items of work can be incorporated early to avoid redesign, additional cost and delay to implementation.
The modification was completed on Sunday 28 September 2014 and there is now up to an additional one minute saving on the journey time each way. The driver no longer has to drop his window to pull the cord and will not be subject to the risk of zoonotic potential (animal diseases spreading to people). One issue remains though, what to call the type
of crossing at Chaffers Lane. TOB with treadle? While the crossing sequence will no longer be initiated directly by the train drivers, they will still have the responsibility of checking that the sequence has completed, the barriers are down and that the crossing is clear. So, with the train crew still key to the safe operation of the crossing, the term TOB is still relevant and correct.
Thanks to Claire Beranek (route asset manager signalling) and her team based in Manchester for their assistance with this article.