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Simply put, I think the law is out of date.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)

Bentleigh crossing

Last week a lady was tragically killed on the level crossing at Bentleigh station, when she walked in front of an express train.

I’d never do it, but unfortunately far too often people do take the risk. It’s not difficult — despite the upgrade, if you approach the crossing from the right hand footpath, you can dodge the locked gate by simply walking around the fencing along the road.

Four people have been killed there in recent years: in 1998, 2000, 2004 and last week. All four have walked into the paths of express trains during morning peak, though until the most recent one, I believe it has involved pushing through the pedestrian gates. These gates were upgraded, and now lock.

Bentleigh level crossing

Since the upgrade, the warning signals at the crossing are plentiful: apart from the usual boom gates, pedestrian gates, bells, and flashing lights, the crossing also has a red man indicator, and “Another train coming” sign that lights up when appropriate.

One can blame the people involved for ignoring all this, but no matter who’s to blame, one has to look at what else can be done to prevent it happening again.

A boom gate on the right hand side of the road? Not normally done in Victoria — my understanding is they want an escape route for any cars that might (incorrectly, and illegally) find themselves stopped on the crossing when the booms go down.

Mckinnon station underpass

It’s notable that all those deaths have been since the pedestrian underpass was filled-in in 1996. Following the 2004 death, reinstating this was looked at. From the Herald Sun 8/9/2005 Tunnel a no-go zone:

BENTLEIGH railway station’s pedestrian underpass will not reopen despite a
report that found it was technically possible.

Transport Minister Peter Batchelor said reopening the old underpass was not feasible. “It was closed because of some deficiencies in its design, because it had problems with flooding when it rained and it had other operational issues,” he said.

But a consultant’s report prepared for the State Government found those problems could be fixed.

The estimated cost of reopening the subway was up to $2 million.

But Mr Batchelor said the underpass could not meet requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Instead, an enhanced ground-level crossing would be installed.

Those enhancements ended up costing $1.2 million. And it appears they still haven’t solved the problem, since people still walk across the tracks when they shouldn’t.

I love the DDA point from Batchelor. Does the underpass which is okay for (perhaps) 90% of people need to be DDA-compliant if those who can’t cope with stairs can still cross at most times at street level?

Many crossings have both over/underpasses and street-level crossing, for instance at Mckinnon (pictured above), Ormond, Brighton Beach, Ripponlea, and others. Some have ramps as well as steps (though the ramps aren’t necessarily DDA-complaint).

It would be interesting to know how often these kinds of accidents occur at locations with conveniently-placed crossing facilities.

Short of complete grade separation of the rail line at Bentleigh, it would seem to make sense for them to look at re-instating the underpass.

Updates:

  • 15/3/2013: Buses have been ordered to replace trains on the Frankston line between Caulfield and Moorabbin stations after a person was hit by a train near Bentleigh just after 7am. Major delays are expected.Fairfax report
  • 1/4/2014: A man has been hit by a train and killed while trying to cross the tracks near Bentleigh railway station on Tuesday night. Police appealed for witnesses to the incident, which happened about 7.15pm.Age report
  • Also: someone created an interactive timeline

Beware

This video of level crossings is incredible. (See also: accompanying article.)

The last clip in particular (starting at 1:10), from my local station at Bentleigh, had me gasping. The first person crossing is foolish enough, but the second — particularly as he appears to stumble — is just seconds from death. I fail to see how anybody could be so stupid.

Idiot at Bentleigh level crossing
People at this very location have been killed before — at least three in the past decade or so. You can argue that crossings should be upgraded or removed, but that doesn’t absolve people from personal responsibility for their actions.

What would have happened if he wasn’t quick enough? This report into a pedestrian/train accident at Ardeer in March last year describes such a case, and is a sobering reminder of why people (whether on foot or driving) need take care around railway crossings:

The train passed through Ardeer Station travelling at about 121 km/h [on the south track]. The occupants of the train cab subsequently sighted a pedestrian on the north track. The pedestrian was observed to be crossing from north to south.

With the train about 95 metres from the crossing and travelling at 119 km/h, the driver gave a short blast on the train horn and immediately applied the emergency brake, followed rapidly by another short blast. The pedestrian was seen to look towards the oncoming train apparently alerted by the horn and then speed up her movement to cross in a southerly direction.

A further and continuous application of the horn commenced about 27 metres before the crossing and was maintained until after the train had passed the crossing. The pedestrian failed to clear the south track by about a metre and was struck by the right hand side of the front of the train at or about the southern most rail of the south track. The pedestrian sustained fatal injuries.

The train was travelling at 112 km/h at impact and subsequently came to a stop 524 metres past the crossing. With the leading car stopped on the Kororoit Creek Bridge, passengers were required to alight from the rear car access doors.

Not much else to say really.