Great Britain has one of the best level crossing safety records in Europe. This is a commendable position, given that the rail network is one of the most intensively used in the world. Network Rail’s 20,000 miles of track directly interface with around 6,000 roads and footpath systems, therefore the challenge to manage public and passenger safety is immense. In spite of the improved safety record and targeted approach to managing level crossing safety, level crossings continue to present one of the biggest public safety risks on the railway.
Accidental fatalities still occur each year across the network. These, coupled with a consistently high rate of near miss incidents and, less frequently, collisions with road vehicles, reinforce the potential risks which exist at level crossings. With the prediction of growth in both rail and road journeys and the addition of the localised pressure from population growth, further improvements to manage safety are still required.
As with any risk, the best way to manage it is to eliminate it, so long as that is practical and the costs are not excessive. In the case of level crossings, elimination means one of three alternatives: the closure of the right of way, its diversion, or the substitution of an over or under-line bridge for the level crossing.
Closure is worth investigation, but often is clearly not feasible. It is usually the best and cheapest option where it can be done.
Bridges are expensive, whether they go over or under the line. Their installation is also potentially very disruptive for the railway, for neighbours and for users of the right of way. They also leave a future liability for the maintenance and eventual renewal of the structure, and in the case of underbridges, may have implications for track and other assets. Land may have to be acquired to allow bridge construction, and this too, may be a challenge.
The railway has been an innovative institution for hundreds of years, and so advanced techniques have been regularly employed to permit the quicker, cheaper and less disruptive installation of bridges. These have included jacking subways under the tracks, building bridges alongside the railway and sliding them under it, and the prefabrication of overbridge superstructures so that these can be craned into place under relatively short possessions.
Despite all of this, a bridge is not always the answer, especially in the case of footways, bridleways and the like. The costs and disruption of a bridge to meet the requirements of users who may include cyclists, horse riders, wheelchair users, wheeled-suitcase haulers and parents with baby buggies (among others), can easily be out of all proportion to the usage of the crossing.
The Liabilities team at Network Rail’s LNE & East Midlands is on the case of the awkward crossings, and Rail Engineer met team member David Shorrocks to hear what they are doing.
He explained that their biggest concern is with public level crossings, which bring the greatest potential for problems. Private crossings are more easily managed, since in each case only a limited number of people usually hold crossing rights. Often there is only one rights holder, typically the owner of lands that were severed when the rail line was constructed. This makes it relatively easy to negotiate with those rights-holders and agree some way to eliminate or manage down any risks.
Public crossings are a very different matter, being available for use by any member of the public who happens to come along, and being subject to statutory control and regulation. There are three principal sets of legal regulatory instruments that affect public crossings. These are the Highways Act 1980, the Town & Country Planning Act 1990 (T&CPA) and the Transport & Works Act 1992 (TWA).
The Highways Act contains five sections that allow the variation or closure of a public right of way, each relating to different circumstances. The local Highways Authority administrates these matters, and Network Rail has to work with it and under its direction to make use of the powers available in this way. Furthermore, the Authority may have to apply to a local magistrates’ court, or a public inspector in some cases, in determining whether an application is approved or rejected.
If an application to affect a crossing is made under the TWA, then the Secretary of State becomes involved, as the works may only proceed if a Transport & Works Act Order is granted by him. This course is generally only followed when the closure of a crossing is being sought as a part of a larger scheme of works that rely upon closure of the crossing. On occasion it may be used when, as a part of the diversion of right of way, a bridge is to be constructed. If the landowner will not sell the required land for the bridge, a TWA Order may be used to overcome this. The Highways Authority can force a footpath onto a third party’s land but has no power to order the construction of a bridge.
The T&CPA would be used where it was required to divert a public right of way as a result of the granting of planning permission. For example, if the planning consent was for the construction of a bridge that could not be constructed without such a diversion, an order could be made under the T&CPA for that diversion to be made. Section 247 of the Act would apply if the right of way was one for mechanically propelled vehicles; if it were a footpath or bridleway, then Section 257 would apply.
There is one further applicable Act of Parliament that may occasionally be used in addition to the three main ones already described. This is the Planning Act 2008, under which Development Control Orders (DCOs) may be made. A DCO would be used for a large-scale new railway development, typically involving more than 2km of new railway line. A DCO is similar to a TWA Order but with rather more stringent timescales.
However the individual level crossing case is dealt with, Network Rail’s approach would always be to engage with stakeholders and endeavour to bring them into agreement with the proposals. Various of the statutory measures that may be used to alter or remove a right of way in order to eliminate a crossing include statutory requirements to consult. However, Network Rail always prefers to go further than the legal minimum, and to sound out opinion before formal consultation. In this way it hopes to forestall objections based upon inaccurate understanding, and also to be able to tailor proposals to remove aspects that are unpopular or impractical for affected parties.
Other considerations affect level crossing removal schemes, particularly the Equality Act, which very often affects proposals for bridges replacing crossings. In urban areas, it is certain that any bridge will have to accommodate the needs of disabled persons and baby buggies. In rural areas, it is no longer the case that such needs can be assumed not to apply. There are such things as cross-country wheelchairs and baby buggies, so crossings that might seem remote could also be forced to comply with these regulations.
Horse riders are another group whose needs have to be taken into account where a crossing is on a bridleway or other right of way that they are entitled to use. As well as needing to be accessible, any replacement for a level crossing would have to allow the required headroom for horse and rider. Over-line bridges must have suitably high parapets for these users. Underbridges (subways) may have to be sufficiently high that the rider doesn’t have to dismount as the right of way may stipulate that the rider may cross while mounted.
David has a list of stakeholders who would typically need to be approached for any level crossing scheme. This runs to about a dozen, including public rights of way officers, landowners, ramblers, parish councillors, the Environment Agency or Internal Drainage Board (if a water course is involved), the Canal & River Trust (if a canal or navigation is affected), and other parties that are active in certain areas, such as the Open Space Society, a local association like the Lincolnshire Fieldpaths Association, or a Local Access Forum. Byways and bridleways bring in additionally specialist stakeholders, including the British Horse Society or the Byway & Bridleway Trust.
Generally the Network Rail approach is to try to assist in enhancing the network of public rights of way, to assist local landowners and to minimise effects on the environment whilst also meeting its own objectives of improving railway safety, reducing future cost and eliminating speed restrictions and other impacts of level crossings upon the railway.
He described a number of examples where this approach has been applied, or is in the course of application:
Highway Act 1980 Section 116 – Cow Lane is used by farmers to access their land means that they have to drive large agricultural machines through narrow village streets and over a level crossing across the railway. The proposal is a new private roadway for the farmers, alongside the railway from a different highway to the field side of the level crossing. The crossing would be stopped up and removed. The result would be the removal of the large vehicles from unsuitable village streets and a private road access to their fields for the farmers. Engagement with stakeholders has taken place and the plans are being progressed.
Highway Act 1980 Section 118 – near Filey, a path crosses a level crossing to go only to one farm. The farm’s owners have no interest in using it. Network Rail has applied under the Act for an extinguishment order.
Highway Act 1980 Section 119 – at West Rounton, an existing level crossing on top of an embankment is approached by steep climbs up each side of the bank. The proposal is to re-route the path to an existing cattle creep underbridge 20 metres away. It will benefit path users by eliminating the need to climb over the embankment. The farmer was unhappy about possible disturbance to his livestock, which like to shelter under the bridge. However, Network Rail has offered to divert another section of the path, routing it off one of his fields by taking it via a nearby lane. This approach looks likely to be successful.
Highway Act 1980 Section 118/118A – in Lincolnshire, a bridleway over a level crossing may be extinguished to allow the crossing to be removed. There is already a public footpath running parallel to the rail line from a private road part way towards the level crossing. Converting that into a bridleway and extending it to the crossing site would allow users to use it to reach an over-line bridge that carries a private road over the railway and then rejoin the existing bridleway route a little further along the road.
Highway Act 1980 Section 118A – in a similar way to the previous example, existing rights of way are to be used to allow a crossing closure at Kirkham Abbey and the extinguishment of a right of way that uses it. However, in this case, the use of the new route involves a public road and it is necessary to carry out improvements here to make the route safer and more convenient for walkers. This case involves the use of a Rail Safety Order, something that a Highway Authority may do under Section 118A if a crossing is unsafe for public use. Section 118A was added to the Act by the T&WA 1992 to allow such Orders to be made where rail safety demands it. Network Rail has to prove, to the satisfaction of the Highway Authority (or possibly a public inspector), that the route over the railway crossing is unsafe, and that it is not feasible or economically feasible to make it safe. If the case is made, an Order will be made, although it might not necessarily just permit Network Rail to divert the route. It might be required, for example, to provide a new bridge instead.
Highway Act 1980 Section 119A – Section 119A is similar in concept to Section 118A, and was also added by the T&W Act 1992. However, this section provides for a brand new route to replace the one over the level crossing. On the East Coast main line (ECML) in Northumberland, where the diversion has already been completed and the crossing has been removed, the Rail Safety Order extinguished a barely used section of route and diverted it parallel to the railway, to an underbridge on a private road.
T&W Act – Network Rail is looking to reinstate a fourth track on the ECML near Abbots Ripton and increase the number of trains. For rail safety, it is necessary to divert a bridleway and close the level crossing. A previous British Railways Act had been used in the past to reduce this right of way from full public highway to bridleway. It will now be necessary to divert the route parallel to the railway to an existing underbridge some 375 metres away along the line, and back the other side of the railway to the existing route. David held a “walkout” with stakeholders as part of the formal consultation, and the work is expected to be implemented in the next nine months.
Development Control Order – work on the Doncaster North Chord at Honeylands Lane involves the construction of a new chord line some 3.2km in length. Two level crossings are affected. One will be moved some distance, to take it from what will become a three-track section onto a two-track location.
These nine examples are not a comprehensive review of the various options, but give a good general indication of the possible approaches and scope available in seeking to eliminate level crossings by extinguishment or diversion. It can be seen that bridges are not the only options.
Also, although some believe that the safest level crossing is a closed level crossing, David hastened to explain that Network Rail does not pursue closure of every level crossing that is looked at. As illustration, of the 1,715 crossings on the route, 114 have been closed since the start of CP5. Which means that 1,601 remain open (for the moment!).