I am fascinated with the ongoing saga of the Ballarat crossing gates.
At about 11:35pm on 30th May last year, a V/Line train from Melbourne that was meant to stop at Ballarat station instead sped through the platforms and crashed through the Lydiard Street crossing gates. The train eventually stopped about 600 metres beyond the station.
Fortunately only one person was injured. An ATSB investigation is ongoing and while that happens, the gates have been left inoperable, closed across the road.
It’s fair to say it’s raised a lot of local interest. The Ballarat Courier has published around thirty articles about it since the incident, mostly about local responses as they wait for the gates to be re-opened.
As I read through the headlines, there’s a definite sense that they thought this would all be resolved and a decision made within a few weeks.
In fact the ATSB investigation is unlikely to be completed until late 2021. They are very thorough, and authorities won’t make a decision on it until it’s done.
Some of the reactions in the Courier have perhaps been a little over the top, with the president of Save Our Station quoted as saying:
“The gates are not being further investigated by ATSB and are not a
contributor to the train crash. The decision by V/Line to investigate
the gates has nothing to do with the accident.
It is time V/Line stopped this act of bastardry, restored the gates and reopened the crossing.”Ballarat Courier 22/1/2021: Lydiard Street gates: No answers on reopening street eight months after crash
I suspect some people need to just calm down a bit.
There does seem to be frustration that it’s taking so long to reach a conclusion:
Chair of Commerce Ballarat Nick Thurlbeck said he believed the closure had not been given the same attention as it would have been given in Melbourne. “It’s unacceptable. A rushed decision for the long-term would not be wise [but] I don’t think there’s any excuse in the delay for an interim solution.Ballarat Courier 11/3/2021: ‘Incredibly frustrated’: reaction to lack of Lydiard Street plan
I suspect what’s in place now is the interim solution.
Just for comparison, here’s the timeline for Melbourne’s New Street (Brighton) crossing, after similar crashes of trains through the gates (though for different reasons):
- 2007: Two accidents; crossing shut “temporarily”
- 2010: Decision to keep crossing shut permanently (under Labor)
- 2011: Proposal to grade separate (under Coalition)
- 2013: Re-opened with conventional booms (under Coalition)
These things can take some time, regardless of the location.
New Street isn’t in a town centre of course, but I’d wager it gets a similar level of traffic, and a lot more trains. It’s also further from alternative points to cross the line.
And yes the New Street crossing was controversial in its time – this is from 2010 before the election.
Some Ballarat locals have cited the disruption of having the road closed – with fears that this would be the permanent solution, with the gates left in position but not operational, similar to numerous locations along Melbourne’s Upfield line.
Would it be very disruptive? Pedestrians can still cross the railway line there. Some route buses have to detour currently, but the new railway station interchange to open in mid-2021 will mean they will no longer use that section of Lydiard Street.
Vehicles can detour up to the Armstrong Street overpass, a couple of hundred metres away. In fact recently I found myself driving this way after a journey to see relatives SW of Ballarat (a long way from the train or the local buses, if you’re wondering).
As you can see from the dashcam footage, detouring took under a minute. In fact it may have been quicker than waiting for the gates to re-open after the train passed through.
Would it take a bit longer in peak hour? Probably, especially the unsignalised right hand turns.
Heritage vs safety
I love old crossing gates. I miss the operation of the New Street gates. It’s lovely that the Ballarat gates lasted so long in operation.
(I wonder if one reason the gates remained is because of the electrified tram line that once crossed there. In this beautiful old photo from Ian Saxon, note the sign directing people to detour via Bridge Street, 150 yards.)
At some point, safety and the requirements of a modern rail system must trump heritage.
As with open doorways and unlocked doors on trams and trains, what was once an acceptable risk sometimes is no longer seen that way.
Broadly there are probably three long term options they could land on for Lydiard Street:
- Close the crossing permanently, leaving old the gates in place across the road for heritage reasons – as now
- Re-open the crossing but use modern boom gates, with the gates on display nearby (as at New Street, Brighton and Humffray Street, Ballarat) – according to a poll in the Courier last week, this seems to be a popular option, though it may not please the heritage purists
- Re-open the crossing with operational heritage gates – which of course leaves the risk it’ll happen again
Even if the gates weren’t at fault in this incident, they are a factor in the safety of the railway at this location. It’s quite possible that the latter option simply won’t be deemed an acceptable risk in 2021.
Given how long it took to resolve New Street, don’t expect a conclusion on this any time soon.
Update 3/5/2021: A version of this post was adapted for an opinion piece in the Ballarat Courier.