Level crossings are a danger to safety

Yet again, a weak point in the railways has been exposed in a terrible accident. In the 1990s, there was a series of accidents on the rail network when drivers went through red lights. This led to the introduction of the Train Protection and Warning System, at a cost of £500m, that has now made such disasters much less likely.

Similarly, improvements in rolling stock design over the years have led to trains which withstand impacts much better during accidents which is why so many people survived Saturday’s derailment.

Overall, rail safety has been improving steadily ever since World War Two and last year the railways celebrated carrying over a billion passengers without a single fatality. However, level crossings have long been a concern, particularly on high speed parts of the network like the Ufton Nervet where the line speed is 110MPH, which allows precious little time for trains to stop if something does go wrong. At that speed, it takes three quarters of a mile for a train to come to a halt. In France, no level crossings are allowed on the high speed network where trains run at 186 MPH.

Sure, no rail passenger had been killed in a similar accident to the one on Saturday since 1978 but the railway authorities were increasingly worried about the steady death toll of around 12 pedestrians and motorists at such crossings each year. The Railway Safety and Standards Board launched a study into the issue two years ago, but its report has not been published yet.

There are, though, no easy solutions. There are suggestions that high tech sensors could be fitted which would detect anything on the line and send a signal into the drivers’ cab, but this is some way off from being developed and could be expensive.

Nor could tunnels and bridges be built at every level crossing, as union leader Bob Crow has suggested as that could cost millions.

However, Network Rail, aware of the danger, has closed 178 crossings, around 10 per cent, in the past two years and this programme is bound to be speeded up as a result of Saturday’s disaster. Maybe that will mean some drivers have to take the long way round, but that is a small price to pay to avoid such tragedies as those at Ufton Nervet on Saturday.