Labor pledges to grade-separate Bentleigh level crossing

As I walked to the station this morning there seemed to be an unusually long tailback of cars approaching the level crossing.

I found a gaggle of reporters at the station, and shortly afterwards state opposition leader Dan(iel) Andrews showed up, with public transport spokesperson Jill Hennessy and local Bentleigh candidate Nick Staikos, to announce Labor will grade separate the Centre Road crossing if elected.

Labor pledges Bentleigh level crossing grade separation

It’s part of Labor’s scheme to remove 50 level crossings over 8 years (two terms). They had announced 40 based on the official ALCAM (Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model) risk ratings, and said they’d announce another 10 in due course… closer to the election.

Evidently the first of those ten is Bentleigh, which is slap bang in a marginal seat, though this doesn’t mean it’s not deserving — in the 2008 ALCAM list (it appears this is the most up-to-date one that has been completed), it sat at number 60. Since then, numerous others in the top 50 have been completed or funded, and there are many more still are in Labor’s first 40 — though I haven’t yet checked if they are all included.

I couldn’t stay for the full press conference (alas, I had a train to catch), but Daniel Andrews said they wouldn’t comment on costings for individual crossings, as they didn’t want to flag to contractors how much they’d be willing to pay. Costings are a hot issue — St Albans has set a record at an estimated $200 million, but some other recent, less complex, crossings have been much much cheaper — for example Middleborough Road (including a new Laburnum station) was $66 million in 2007. And the Springvale and Blackburn crossings completed earlier this year were three for $350 million, or an average of $117 million each — and you’d expect economies of scale to drive prices down if you were doing 50.

I think most locals will welcome this pledge. It’s not just traffic (including buses and cyclists) which is frequently delayed — people walking to and from the station often have to wait… though the programming of the gates sometimes sees long delays for distant approaching trains, and some people lose patience and skip around the gates.

And though it’s not as big a problem as it is at Clayton, it’s not unknown to see emergency vehicles having to wait as well.

Along with other grade separations along the line, it allows more trains to run without impacting local road traffic.

Bentleigh also has a less than stellar record for safety, with a number of fatal accidents over the years — though fewer since the pedestrian gates were upgraded. Here’s an interactive timeline created by Amy Foyster:

But the pledge raises a question: given North Road is funded to be grade separated, would Labor propose to do Mckinnon Road as well? It’s midway between them, only 800 metres from North Road, and 800 metres from Centre Road. Unless all three are done (preferably as one project, to save money and minimise disruptions) the line could resemble a roller coaster, and play havoc with the freight trains, which already have problems getting up the hill northbound into Ormond.

The local Leader newspaper is seeking comment from sitting Liberal member Elizabeth Miller on the crossing. Nothing yet.

Update 18/9/2014:

Plea to stay safe – from a Melbourne train driver

This was posted on Facebook by a Melbourne train driver last week. It’s well worth a read. Given he says “please share this” (and other copies doing the rounds are screen dumps, making it difficult to read, especially for those with vision issues), I’m posting the text in full here:

I try to keep my posts upbeat, but right now, I need to vent. As most of you know, I am a train driver. Today, in the space of ten minutes, I had no less than ten people stupidly risk their lives, either trying to catch my train, or save one minute on their journeys.

Running an Upfield train to town, the first station after departing Upfield is Gowrie. The pedestrian crossing is at the approach to the station and is fitted with gates and a very noisy alarm. Four people bypassed the safety gates and ran across in front of my train as I approached the station at 55km/h. The tracks were wet. The train weighs around 250 tonne, not counting passengers. The wheels are made of steel and so is the track. There is no “instant gratification” when you hit the brakes. This time they were lucky.

Next station is Fawkner, right in the middle of the cemetery. Two more did the same dash, they were lucky, also.

Merlynston Station. A woman is held back by the safety gate. She looks at the train. She acts agitated. She waits, but just as I depart, pushes through the bypass gate and only a long loud whistle from me causes her to retreat. She then walks back, pulls out her phone and hides her face as I drive past.

Batman Station. Level crossing, boom gates dropping into position, lights, bells – everything warning “Do Not Cross”. Cyclist decides to beat the booms, rides across on the wrong side of the road, looks at me defiantly and nearly gets knocked of his bike as the boom on the other side reaches it’s lowest point.

Coburg Station (Getting a pattern here?). Level crossing. Two more cyclist. one, a MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra) edges up to the crossing on the wrong side of the road, and looks at me, calculating whether he has time to get across before I depart. He is joined by a lady cyclist in her thirties in a dress. She looks, too. At the last moment, they look right and see another train coming from the other direction and pull their bikes out of it’s path with very little time to spare.

Needless to say, I wasn’t happy. This happens on a daily basis. Fatalities do occur. Lives are lost and others ruined. How do you educate the public? If you need to catch the 7.30 train, get to the station at 7.25. Don’t assume it will be late. If the gates are closed, the booms down, the bells ringing, the lights flashing, it’s not the starting gun for a race, it means stop and wait – seriously. Wouldn’t you rather be ten minutes late for work instead of early for your funeral?

I was just going to put this behind me, but as I was cooking tea tonight, the news had a story of an 86 year old man, who “misjudged the speed of a train” at Edithvale, pushed his bike through a crossing and is now no longer with us. It was three thirty in the afternoon and the train was full of school kids. I had a fatality about five years ago, at Aspendale, one station closer to Melbourne. You see it happening. You can’t stop your train. You hear the thump. You live with it forever. You are angry that people can be so careless with their lives.

Think. Act.

Please share this if you think even one person might learn from it.

Rant over.

(Found via Reddit. Original Facebook post.)

Level crossing rules: safe to cross, but illegal

Happy Rail Safety Week.

Level crossing. Three tracks. The two in the foreground have no train coming, and the automatic gates for them are open. There’s a train approaching on the other track, and its gates are closed.

Logic would suggest it’s perfectly safe, and perfectly legal to walk through the open gates, right?

Level crossing pedestrian gates

Turns out, it’s safe, but illegal. Today’s Age:

A COMMUTER has been taken to court and fined for doing what thousands of people do every day in Melbourne – walking through the open gates of an automated railway pedestrian crossing.

He was fined because he crossed while the warning signals at the nearby road level crossing were flashing, which is against the law.

Age: Safety rule at railway crossing a step too far for one commuter

Here’s what the law says (I’ve bolded the relevant phrase):

(1) A pedestrian must not cross or attempt to cross railway tracks at a place provided for crossing by pedestrians -

(a) when gates at the crossing or at an adjacent vehicle crossing are closed or locked; or

(ab) when warning signals or devices are operating at the pedestrian crossing or at an adjacent vehicle crossing; or

(b) when a rail vehicle can be seen or heard approaching and there would be a danger of a collision with the rail vehicle if the pedestrian entered the crossing; or

(c) when a rail vehicle is on or entering the crossing; or

(d) if the crossing or the path beyond the crossing is blocked; or

(e) when directed not to do so by an authorised person (conduct).

Penalty: 5 penalty units.

I think it all makes sense except the bolded section of clause (ab). Many level crossings simply don’t work like this — they have automated pedestrian gates which work separately to the flashing lights and bells for vehicles. (Blog reader Kevin has pointed out that gates at Glenhuntly are operated from the signal box, so they are not truly automatic.)

Specifically, at stations with island platforms, only the gates relevant to the tracks with passing trains are closed, allowing people to enter and exit the platform, or to cross half way.

Simply put, I think the law is out of date. It matches a time when there were no pedestrian gates, just the “maze” — the layout of railings designed to ensure you looked both ways before you crossed. Back then, it made sense to use the vehicle lights/bells/booms as your guide.

It’s Rail Safety Week this week

For Rail Safety Week, Victoria Police are doing a blitz on level crossings.

On Wednesday morning I spoke to some plain clothes police who were at the level crossing at Bentleigh station. They implied they agree the legislation doesn’t match reality, and said they’re taking a “common sense” approach and only booking people trying to get past closed/closing gates. Fair enough.

But the gentleman in the Age article obviously didn’t get the common sense approach when he was booked by an Authorised Officer.

The silliest thing is the Department of Transport’s response in the Age article:

But the department does not intend to review the law, saying it promotes safe behaviour. ”It is important that people act safely at railway tracks and crossings at all times and do not take it upon themselves to act contrary to the warning signals,” a spokeswoman said.

I wonder if they even fully understood the question.

Update: Meanwhile, Chris Gordon on Twitter noted that the PTV standards actually require the pedestrian gates to work like this:

At pedestrian crossings providing access to an island platform (including those at road crossings), the pedestrian gate pair for each track shall operate independently from the other.
– Page 39

Have higher weekend train frequencies resulted in huge traffic jams at level crossings? No.

There was speculation from some quarters that introducing 10 minute train frequencies would result in long traffic queues at level crossings, similar to those seen in many suburbs during peak commuting hours.

I think this was unfounded. Looking around Bentleigh on a recent weekend, it seems no worse than when trains ran half as frequently.

Bentleigh level crossing

I think there’s a couple of reasons for this:

Less trains than weekday peak hours — this crossing gets 3-4 trains every 9 minutes (counting both directions) in peak; about 23 trains per hour. On weekends it’s about half that.

Less motor vehicle traffic than weekday peak hours, so it’s never going to be as bad as peak.

For a train that stops at the station then goes through the crossing (eg southbound), the gates are down for about 75 seconds. For a train in the other direction, it’s about 45 seconds. So every 10 minutes, assuming the two trains aren’t crossing at the same time, the gates are closed for about 2 minutes, or 20% of the time. This is less than a typical road intersection (about 50%) and much less than an intersection with a major road such as Nepean Highway (probably over 70%).

The other thing is that more frequent train services should, in the longer term, attract more people out of their cars, reducing traffic. It’s a bit hard to tell if this has had any effect yet, or if a north-south railway would ever take a substantial amount of east-west road travel, of course. (This is why Smartbus services also need to be expanded and boosted.)

Perhaps it’s worse at other locations, such as the notorious Murrumbeena Road crossing. But other hotspots I’ve seen such as North Road, Ormond, appear to be managing okay.

There are genuine concerns that roads will clog up if a large number of extra trains are added in peak hours — grade separation is the only long-term full solution to fix that.

But in off-peak hours including weekends and evenings, there should be nothing stopping the government bringing the huge benefits of 10 minute train services to the rest of Melbourne.

Idiot of the day

About an hour ago at Highett station: the train to Frankston had just left, and a city-bound train was approaching.

This idiot cyclist rode across in front of the city-bound train. The train driver tooted his horn loud and long. The cyclist entered the station, and appeared to want to catch the train — I’d be surprised if the driver didn’t verbally berate the cyclist over the PA.

Cyclist risks death riding out in front of train (1/2)

Cyclist risks death riding out in front of train (2/2)