Need for level crossing upgrades

A new safety bulletin from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) shows the state and territory governments must act quickly to upgrade thousands of level crossings across Australia, the chief executive of the Australian Trucking Association, Stuart St Clair, said.

“The ATSB’s new bulletin on level crossing safety points out that level crossing accidents involving heavy vehicles have the potential to be catastrophic,” Mr St Clair said.

“The ATSB and the state authorities investigated 15 level crossing accidents between April 2006 and December 2007. Twelve of those accidents involved heavy vehicles. In total, the accidents cost 19 lives, injured more than 60 people and created a damage bill of more than $100 million,” he said.

The bulletin states that: "…road and rail regulators in every state need to ensure unnecessary level crossings are eliminated and those that remain are as safe as possible and in compliance with the relevant Australian standards."

A number of recent ATSB investigations have found deficiencies in regard to compliance with standards and train sight distance limitations. Although none of these deficiencies were found to be directly causal to the particular accident, this may not always be the case.

“There are more than 6,000 level crossings in Australia that are not as safe as possible, because they do not have active warning systems like flashing lights. These level crossings are a safety risk, because they do not provide drivers with enough cues to remind them that they face a potentially dangerous situation,” Mr St Clair said.

“These level crossings need to be upgraded, with upgrades such as:

– installing rumble strips and reducing signage clutter so the key safety warnings stand out;

– improving sight lines by removing trees and other obstacles;

– installing high visibility strobe lights on locomotives;

– reducing the speed of high speed trains near high risk crossings; and

– installing active protections like flashing lights and boom gates on the crossings with the highest level of risk.

“It is particularly important to upgrade level crossings on roads used by 53.5 metre B+2A road trains, which consist of a prime mover and four trailers. These road trains are used across outback Australia.

“The ATSB’s tests show that a 53.5 metre road train could take up to 71 seconds to go over a level crossing after stopping at its stop sign. During this time, a high speed train would travel 2,275 metres, but the current Australian Standard only requires drivers to have 937.8 metres of visibility up and down the tracks.

“In other words, there is nothing the truck driver of a 53.5 metre road train could do to avoid an accident if he or she started across the level crossing at the wrong time,” Mr St Clair said.

Mr St Clair emphasised that truck drivers need to take extreme care when they approach level crossings.

“The report points out that interstate freight trains weigh more than 5,000 tonnes and take kilometres to stop. By the time a train driver sees a road vehicle on a level crossing, it’s probably too late to do anything but sound the horn,” he said.

“It’s imperative that truck drivers stay alert and obey the road rules around level crossings. It’s also imperative that trucking operators have safety systems in place to remind drivers about the importance of level crossing safety.

“But the state and territory governments must recognise that mistakes happen, no matter how often people are reminded to take care. The states and territories must upgrade Australia’s level crossings to reduce the chance that a simple mistake could lead to a catastrophic accident,” Mr St Clair said.

The ATSB Railway Level Crossing Safety Bulletin can be downloaded from www.atsb.gov.au.

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