Rail industry news (Australia, New Zealand), Australasian Railways Association, Industry Opinion

Level crossing roundtable

Danny Broad.

Safety at Australia’s more than 20,000 crossings along our 45,000 km of railway track is back in the spotlight, with a roundtable, prompted by the tragic deaths of two freight train drivers on New Year’s Eve on the South Australia and NSW border.

The Federal Government’s recently released zero-harm National Level Crossing Safety Strategy 2023–2032 will provide a blueprint for industry and government to improve safety at crossings, and the roundtable will be a critical opportunity to ensure all possible solutions have been canvassed by stakeholders.

Railway crossings are the most common cause of fatalities on the rail network, with the exception of suicides and trespassing. Any death or injury on the rail network is devastating  – not just for the family and friends impacted but also for rail workers involved in the incident and the first responders called upon in the rescue effort.

There are also great economic consequences from disruption to the rail network, with hundreds of millions of dollars lost each year due to safety incidents.

Between 1 July 2014 and 31 December 2022 across Australia’s level crossings, (involving either pedestrians or road vehicles), there were: 7,839 near hits 322 collisions 39 fatalities 49 serious injuries.

While improvements to technology, safety and awareness means Australia has among the safest crossings in the world, the annual collision rate between road vehicles and trains has remained at over 30 since 2015 so we acknowledge there is still more to do to reach our goal of zero harm on the network.

The key factor to improving safety at railway crossings is to make it a genuinely shared responsibility. If we are to further improve safety at rail crossings, it must be a collaborative effort– by federal and state governments, industry groups, private operators, all road users and unions.

Safety measures require a multi-faceted approach, taking into consideration infrastructure design and environmental and human behaviour factors. Technology alone is not the solution.

The vast majority of “passive” crossings, those with no controls beyond signage, are typically in regional areas on public roads or private property without access to power, making flashing lights and warning bells a very expensive undertaking unless we can better utilise battery and solar energy and various trials for this are underway.

Removing crossings by adding tunnels or bridges, or closing them, is an obvious step but it is unrealistic to expect that this can occur for all crossings.  The rail industry urges an ongoing commitment of funding by Government to remove those that they can and at the very least, have a policy not to increase the number of crossings in their state.

Considerable work on improving train visibility is also being undertaken. The Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) recently conducted research on flashing beacons on locomotives and conversion of locomotive headlights from halogen globes to light-emitting diode (LED).

ONRSR is working with industry representatives, unions and governments on the development of Australia’s first Code of Practice for train visibility and a draft is due to Federal and State Infrastructure and Transport Ministers by mid-2024.

Improvements can also be made in urban planning, such as councils removing vegetation and other obstructions to keep sight lines clear for drivers. As new suburbs are developed on the fringes of cities, planning should ensure that no new crossings are added and that roads to existing crossings are realigned for better sight, and consideration is given to installing warning signs and rumble strips.

Truck freight routes and road ratings also need to be reviewed to ensure that multi-trailer trucks can safely stop at crossings without overhanging the crossing or other roads.

Ultimately, however, we need individuals to come on the journey if we are to ever reach zero-harm.

Anecdotal evidence continues to show that some drivers try and ‘beat the train’ or don’t stop at the stop sign, and the rise of distracted driving due to mobile phones and other tech devices has vastly increased the risk.

Governments need to increase enforcement of the road rules at railway crossings, including using mobile cameras at crossings. We also need harsher penalties for ignoring warning signals and unlawfully entering the rail corridor.

The rail industry has invested significantly in community awareness measures through the TrackSAFE Foundation and currently has an expansive public awareness campaign throughout rural Australia, “Expect the Unexpected – Watch out for Trains”, targeting railway crossing hotspots.

However, tragically, two train drivers, Mick Warren and Kevin Baker, both with families, died on the job on New Year’s Eve while transporting freight on the Barrier Highway at Bindarrah in South Australia on the NSW border, prompting their employer Pacific National to call for today/tomorrow’s roundtable.

These men were experienced drivers providing a critical service benefiting all Australians – moving freight over the holiday period to help keep our economy moving.As a result of this collision, wives lost their husbands, children lost their fathers and local communities and colleagues were left devastated.

It is very encouraging to see this important issue once again getting the attention it deserves as the significance of railway crossing safety cannot be overstated. But we must have a collaborative approach that looks beyond infrastructure upgrades and technology-based solutionsIt must include a full audit of the nation’s railway crossings to identify at-risk locations, increased penalties for blatant indiscretions, nationally consistent incident reporting that identifies causes and joint industry public awareness campaigns.

Everyone deserves to arrive home safely. We welcome the opportunity to participate in the roundtable and to explore what additional measures can be taken to achieve greater safety at railway crossings  – but a nationally coordinated approach with shared responsibility needs to underpin reforms for real change to occur.

Danny Broad is the Chair of TrackSAFE and the Australasian Railway Association and a member of the government committee tasked by Transport Ministers to improve railway crossing safety, the National Level Crossing Safety Committee (NLCSC).

The TrackSAFE Foundation is a harm prevention charity established by the rail industry with the purpose of reducing fatalities, injuries and near hits on the rail network, and improving the wellbeing of the rail workforce.