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The Ballarat railway gate saga

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.

Railway gates at Ballarat station

Reaction

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.

Disruption

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.)

Tram crossing Lydiard Street, Ballarat

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.

15 replies on “The Ballarat railway gate saga”

The first comment wasn’t over the top!
I can understand, and quite agree with the argument, that the gates were not the cause of the problem.
It seems that the Vic Govt will use this as an excuse to not repair the gates at all but get rid of them in typical fashion.

The New Street gates were still manually opened and closed, weren’t they? Which is different to the Ballarat gates?

Certainly a train running through gates is a problem, but presumably the train would still have run through the crossing unprotected if it had normal boom gates because it was running through a red signal at the station. And I imagine that’s the key safety issue. The ATSB report suggests the other two level crossings the train went through probably worked fine but with likely less warning time. I imagine they just needed to detect the train coming whereas at the station the train was expected to stop (would/could the train controllers known there was an issue and reacted – maybe there wasn’t enough time?)

The gates did not cause the accident but they were at high risk of making it much worse. Had there been pedestrians nearby, they could have been killed or injured by debris from the train smashing into the gates. That is the same reason boom gate level crossing don`t have booms down across the railway when they are open to road traffic, the risk of injury in case of collision is too high.

@Khris, “this act of bastardry” isn’t over the top?

@Steve, my understanding is the Ballarat gates are operated via a lever from the signal box, which yes makes them a bit different to the New St gates, where the operator had to physically move the gates themselves. Both manually operated, but in different ways.

Whether booms at Lydiard St would have activated in time is a good question, given there would normally be an expectation that every service would be stopping at Ballarat – though I assume there would be a setting for out of service trains that are not stopping… but perhaps not at the speed reached in this particular case.

While the gates no doubt were originally manually operated from the lever frame in the signal box, that box has been derelict and unmanned for years… The gates were actuated from steel rods running into a locked metal box as far as I recall.

I hope they close the crossing to cars permanently, it has been glorious being able to cross on foot without having to wait for the beg button on the signalised crossings – and as you pointed out, there is a grade separated crossing at Armstrong street just 150yds west

I suspect the situation has been used as always as a political football by Amy Johnson Deputy Mayor Ballarat and Vice president of Victorian Liberals and sometime state candidate for a Ballarat seat in State Parliament.
Interesting the favoured option by the people is to Re-open the crossing but use modern boom gates.

Is there a chance of grade separating this crossing without compromising the surrounding areas and the heritage building?

Maybe a road under rail similar to Buckley street in Essendon?

@annon Gnarr creek runs roughly below market street and the station precinct as a bricked in creek/stormwater drain until it meets the yarrowee river near grenville & mair streets probably complicating anything going below.

You’ve omitted the fact the train overshooting can happen with boom gates in the full open position. The fact is a train passed through a 40kmh signal at 100kmh and passed another signal at stop at 100kmh (end of the platform), no gates in the world are going to protect against that unless you set your approach circuits for 100kmh running (an absurdity for the location). If anything, the trains should all be pulled from service and investigated.

There are still plenty of gates like this in Melbourne which were permanently closed. Was hardly this level of outcry. I think one is on the Upfield line near Jewell and another is on the Mernda line?

Am I correct in understanding that the trains and the tracks are not set up to prevent drivers or faulty trains breaking the speed limit? Is there no way to automatically apply train brakes when a speed limit is exceeded? If there isn’t, then no level crossing near a station could ever be expected to work safely because there would be no way to know whether a train might approach at a speed far too high for the gates to close in time.

@Philip – Metro and V/line use two different methods of stopping trains, both primarily intended to prevent a train from passing a signals at stop. There are a handful of locations where extra equipment has been added to prevent trains from exceeding a set speed, but neither system supports full time enforcement of speed – that would require a full ‘Automatic Train Protection’ system.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_train_protection

It is also worth nothing that the two train stop systems are incompatible, with the V/Line system slowly being rolled out across Melbourne where they share the track, so that V/Line trains can’t pass signals that a Metro train would get stopped at.

Also worth mentioning that a train stop system won’t stop a train from exceeding the speed limit if the brakes are not physically working, which the ATSB report suggests. This was the same situation that the Siemens trains had in Melbourne a decade ago – it’s no good having a system to prevent a train from passing a signal at stop, if the brakes do nothing.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-10/funding-to-reopen-ballarat-lydiard-crossing/100128446

Ballarat’s replica heritage Lydiard Street gates are set to go, with the state government announcing a new fully automated level crossing system will be installed by mid-next year.

The crossing, next to Ballarat train station, has been closed for almost 12 months after a runaway train crashed through the wooden gates — replicas of those from the 1800s — in May last year.

Ballarat City councillor Samantha McIntosh said it had taken the state government too long to come up with a temporary solution.

“It’s a shame that this interim solution couldn’t have happened a year ago. It’s been a dreadful shame that our community hasn’t had access to Lydiard Street.”

Cr McIntosh said she was “very disappointed” the state government was walking away from integrating the old-style gates into the new system.

“Our community want the gates protected, they want to see the gates operating in some form,” she said.

“The issue was about the fault of the train, not the fault of the gates. I certainly believe over the time the focus has been shifted to be on the gates — not for the right reasons.”

Nick Foa from the Department of Transport said the old gates, which took two minutes to open and had to be monitored via CCTV in Melbourne, were responsible for 60 per cent of delays on the Ballarat line.

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