Rail industry news (Australia, New Zealand), Freight Rail, Standards and Regulations, Rail Express features

Taking the lead on level crossing safety

As a company, Pacific National has many reasons why it is championing a greater focus and coordination on level crossing safety nationwide. 

In the wake of the tragic death of two of its drivers following a collision with a truck on New Year’s Eve 2023, Pacific National has led calls for action and a national roundtable to improve safety around level crossings to save the lives of motorists and train crew.

With industry, regulators, unions and government coming together for a national roundtable back in March in Brisbane to consider life-saving actions, measures and reforms, Pacific National is hopeful Australia can realise its vision and achieve zero harm at level crossing.

Pacific National CEO Paul Scurrah said the business was profoundly reeling following the deaths of its experienced Port Augusta train crew Mick Warren and Kevin Baker and had immediately committed to rolling out a public awareness campaign to educate communities on railway level-crossing safety.

In a statement released by Pacific National following the incident, he said it was such a cruel way to end the year.

“In times like these, words can never truly capture the magnitude of our grief. The loss of our colleagues has left an indelible mark on Pacific National, and we are all grappling with the profound sadness that comes from such an unexpected tragedy,” Scurrah said.

CEO Paul Scurrah delivered a keynote address at the level crossing safety roundtable. IMAGE: Pacific national

“Mick and Kevin were deeply respected and beloved members of our Port Augusta team, and their memories will be honoured by our organisation.

“Our commitment to safety above all else has never been stronger. We all owe it to Mick and Kevin to learn from this event and do everything in our power to prevent such a tragedy in the future.”

Moving level crossing safety awareness into high gear

Scurrah said the business has developed the ‘Don’t take a chance, take a look’ campaign to ensure the spotlight was on safety around level crossings and honour Mick and Kevin’s legacy.

“As Australia’s largest private rail freight company, our drivers are acutely aware of the high frequency of near miss incidents at level crossings, which is why we want to ensure the safety message is heeded by drivers to avoid future tragedies,” he said.

“A train can’t swerve or stop quickly, so we want to remind motorists to not take a chance when they approach a crossing so everyone can all go home safely, every day.”

With more than 23,000 level crossings around Australia where road intersects with the country’s rail network, Pacific National’s campaign is designed to complement and build on existing industry and government campaigns that run annually.

Scurrah delivered a keynote address at the level crossing safety roundtable and highlighted Pacific National’s campaign and the importance on addressing behaviour around rail crossing.

“It’s easy to get bogged down in the statistics, but each collision and near miss is a human experience. And while some people escape unscathed and are only shaken, too many families are burdened with tragedy like Mick and Kevin’s families,” he said. “The collision in Bindarrah was a tragedy. But one that I believe was entirely preventable. Five of the last six major level crossing collisions occurred at sites that already have the highest level of protection and visibility.

The organisation is one of the biggest private freight operators in Australia and wants to utilise this position to drive change. IMAGE: Pacific national

“This means while we can’t afford to de-prioritise level crossing upgrades, right now we need to up the ante to target human behaviour.”

Scurrah said this was consistent with the National Level Crossing Safety Committee and Freight on Rail Group (FORG) positions and the industry must prioritise behaviour change in a far more aggressive way than we have done to date.

Finding a solution

Scurrah encouraged those attending the roundtable to bring as many stakeholders into this discussion as possible.

“The solution is not exclusively at the level crossing,” he said.

“It also sits in the boardrooms and offices of transport companies, road and rail infrastructure owners, regulators, local council chambers, state and federal governments, law enforcement, unions, and industry bodies.

“We know the majority of level crossings across the country will never be grade separated and those that are earmarked will take a longer time.

“Recent research from the Queensland University of Technology has shown that the majority of risky behaviour at level crossings relate to vehicle driver behaviour.

“The research showed that risky behaviour relates to violation of road rules including fatigue, not driving to the conditions, complacency, and distraction.”

National Level Crossing Safety Strategy

With the release of the new National Level Crossing Strategy, Scurrah said industry has a blueprint to drive change and improve safety.

The Strategy represents a commitment to reducing the incidence of fatalities and injuries across Australia’s level crossings and is based on national rail safety data analysis.

It was developed following engagement with more than 30 organisations from the community, government, road and rail industry providing expertise and insights.

The objectives are:

Education and Enforcement

Increase awareness of level crossings that trigger desirable behaviour change in users and reinforce compliance through improved enforcement.
Assets, Technology and Innovation

Leverage a combination of asset and technology-based solutions that are cost-effective, innovative and shown to reduce the risk of harm.

Data Improvement and Knowledge Management

Capture level crossing data in a nationally consistent manner and share analysis that delivers insights to inform practical safety improvements and decisions.

National Coordination

Develop a consistent and nationally coordinated approach to improve collaboration, share knowledge and drive actions that will be most effective if implemented nationally to reduce incidents at level crossings.

“We will continue to play our part in helping to achieve the objectives,” said.

Pacific National has been deeply impacted by the recent incident and is determined to make a difference. IMAGE: Pacific national

“Pacific National also endorses and contributes to the committee’s position that calls for effective technology in preventing level crossing incidences.

“We want to see improved and consistent enforcement of breach of the law and a consistent national approach to improving awareness and education for drivers around level crossings.”

Scurrah touched on an example of when an increase of enforcement made a difference to vehicle safety around low bridges.

The NSW government introduced a six-month registration suspension penalty to the owners and operators of heavy vehicles who struck bridges, while truck drivers face a $4,097 fine and 12 demerit points for an incident.

“We want to see enforcement as a catalyst for behaviour change,” Scurrah said.

“After the government brought in these harsh penalties for bridge strikes, the instances have dropped dramatically.

“The difference in penalties in each state should be brought together under one consistent, strict model to create change.

“We also want to see improved and consistent enforcement of breach of the law and a consistent national approach to improving awareness and education for drivers around level crossings.”

Scurrah called for greater coordination between Federal, State Governments and agencies on level crossing priorities and a focus on the interface between road and rail infrastructure.

“We want to see a revision and effective training for road vehicle drivers about level crossing safety, with training to be required before a license is granted,” he said.

“Pacific National agrees with the strategy and we must prioritise behaviour change in a more aggressive way than we have done.”

Education is one of the key components of the strategy and Scurrah believes this section is critical.

“A properly coordinated singular industry voice with the goal of educating the public in a persistent way [is needed], not just a one-off or service campaign that we have traditionally done. We’re going to need government support to do this,” he said.

“We believe for behaviour change we want to see that being driven through real-time awareness through technology and innovation.”

Scurrah made a more personal call out to regulators at the end of his speech.

“There is no silver bullet, but if everyone works together and continues to focus on improving level crossing safety, we’ll have ensured that the passing of Mick and Kevin and the lives of every other person who has been impacted by a level crossing fatality in Australia has not been in vain.”