Crossing the Tracks

Collisions at railway level crossings can be devastating to life and property.
Christopher Wren.

Dr Christopher Wren joined the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) as a Senior Policy Officer in July 2023.

His keen interest in law inspired him to pursue a PhD and he is passionate about using his skills and experience to make a positive impact on the law and policy landscape in Australia.

Prime Mover: Why are you championing reform in regulations affecting railway level crossings?
Chris Wren: It’s a critical issue which affects our truck drivers and other road users, and I want to help understand why it is so important we work for real change in this area. Between 1st July 2014 and 31st December 2022 there were 39 lives lost, and 49 serious injuries at railway level crossings in this country. These are not just numbers — these are men and women who left home and never returned, never came back to their loved ones, and there have been thousands of near misses at level crossings all across the country. This is a really big problem. It’s complex, it’s multi-faceted and we need a blend of short- and long-term solutions in order to solve this. And I don’t mean to minimise that fact at all.

PM: So where does industry start?
CW: I’d like to focus on the illumination or the lack thereof of trains in this country. Collision data makes up dominant narrative in this sector and it’s really important to keep in mind that data and statements on safety issues should be taken in context. According to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) for every million kilometres travelled by freight trains in 2016-2021 there was an average of 0.18 collisions with road vehicles at level crossings. The ATSB states that collisions with road vehicles are more common, more dangerous than those involving light vehicles, and they are more likely to cause damage to infrastructure.

PM: Are heavy vehicles over-represented in the collision statistics?
CW: Heavy vehicles are more frequently involved in level crossing collisions on a per-vehicle and per-kilometre basis. It’s important to remember trucks drive far greater distances and more frequently on certain routes, particularly on rural routes with “passive” level crossings — those with no active safety controls, no boom gates, no flashing lights and, if you’re lucky, a give way or a stop sign. Level crossing collisions involving heavy vehicles are more likely to lead to injuries to the occupants of rail vehicles, more likely to damage rail vehicles and track, and more likely to derail the trains.

PM: Is the frequency of these collisions changing?
CW: There were 11 collisions between heavy road vehicles and trains at level crossings across Australia during the 12 months between July 2020 and June 2021. There were 23 such collisions over the previous five years. Keep in mind these are sourced from the ATSB, predominantly from a document they created entitled the “Review of Level Crossing Collisions Involving Trains and Heavy Road Vehicles in Australia” which was released on the 4th March this year. While developing this paper the data recorded was entirely from the narrative description provided by the train operator. The data does not include the level of damage sustained by road vehicles. The data does not include the speed, direction, mass or length of road vehicles and, quite impossibly, the data does not include the actions of the road user. My point here is some of the narratives in this space are quite misleading as they are not communicating the full picture. And this is some of the most authoritative data we have and it’s just not good enough.

Dr Christopher Wrenn ATA Senior Policy Officer.

PM: How much of the human factor plays a part in these collisions?
CW: Part of the ATSB’s work demonstrated that road vehicle drivers are inherently susceptible to unintentional errors. While level crossing systems rely on road vehicle drivers always detecting the level crossing and at passive level crossings always detecting the presence of trains, it is certain that this will fail from time to time and result in accidents in the future. What the ATSB have done is establish that human error is a large element contributing to potential incidents. That’s not a particularly helpful conclusion, so for me the real question is if human error is not spotting an approaching train, then how can we make the train more visible to reduce that human error to as low as possible? The ATSB admit that any controls to help road users detect the presence of trains will provide an enhanced level of safety. The ATA, along with numerous other groups and peer-review academic and scientific journals, consider that illuminating trains better, ideally with flashing lights, is an effective control that won’t harm safety.

PM: So what are we doing in this space?
CW: One of the things is advocating train illumination to be a legal requirement. Why? The rail regulator currently has a code of practice entitled ‘Level Crossings and Train Visibility’. It actually deals with neither of these subjects. It’s woefully inadequate throughout, especially on the illumination of carriages. The document is entirely voluntary and leaves the decision on whether rolling stock operators increase train visibility up to them. No commitment, just a voluntary code written by an industry with a history of self-interest. Our submission on this code of practice is freely available on the ATA website.

PM: Why is there a focus on flashing lights?
CW: Research show that lights strobing or flashing in a person’s visual field draws their attention directly through a stimulus driven response. Fitting strobe lights to trains is a lower cost option to address the visibility issues encountered by road users and pedestrians when navigating level crossings safely. Several studies have examined the effects of locomotive mounted lighting measures on trains. These studies used strobe lights mounted on the sides and front of trains, ditch lights illuminating the side of the track, and crossing lights which were a flashing variant of ditch lights. All these solutions produced statistically significant increases in train detection distances. The greatest gain was made with the use of all three. The rail industry’s failure to acknowledge this issue does not change the fact that improving the visibility of trains, particularly in the case of level crossings, will have significant safety benefits. The NHVR and the ATA have issued a crucial safety notice which is testament to the shared commitment to reducing fatalities and injuries at the more than 20,000 level crossings intersecting the roads and pathways in this country. The notice includes simple do’s and simple don’ts for drivers to remember. It is imperative for truck drivers not to become complacent because even a momentary lapse of concentration or judgement can be fatal. Taking a risk at level crossings is never worth it.

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