Rail 529: Level Crossing Tragedy was a Disaster Waiting to Happen

The tabloids are rightly blamed for hyping up dangers on the railway but, as CHRISTIAN WOLMAR explains, the deaths of two girls on a level crossing at Elsenham show that the ‘red tops’ aren’t always wrong on safety issues.

I’ve been consorting with the devil. Those of you who read The Sun will have been surprised to see my ageing features (all 56 years of them…) decorating its columns – on page 19, rather than page three, I hasten to add.

It was with some trepidation that I agreed to co-operate on a feature highlighting the dangers of the crossing at Elsenham where two girls were killed on Saturday December 3 as they ran to catch the train to Cambridge. It is all too easy to get into blaming the railway companies for any accident on the network, especially with the full power of hindsight. Indeed, I often turn down similar requests to comment on safety matters from the media because the story does not stand up.

This time it was different. At first, I thought it was just a case of terrible bad luck for the poor girls who had obviously made a fatal mistake. I gave a quick interview to ITN before I could get the background and just said such events were rare. However, I received e-mails from locals about the situation at Elsenham and a similar crossing by Shelford station up the line. I was also contacted by Chris Bazlinton, the father of one of the girls, with whom I worked at a magazine in the 1980s. As I learnt more, it became clear that this was a crossing that posed specifi c risks. The layout is far from ideal: the two platforms are staggered and in between there is the road with a manned level crossing. There is no footbridge and passengers have to cross the tracks using a little gate next to the crossing at the end of the up platform and operated separately from the road gates.

The village is on the down side but the ticket offi ce is on the up platform and there is no ticket machine on the other platform which means that occasional passengers, like the girls, travelling to Cambridge, have to cross the tracks twice or face a penalty, recently increased to £20.

There is no catch on the gate but there is a red and green light system fi tted. One of my correspondents suggested that people often missed trains because they could be stuck on the wrong side of the tracks for up to 12 minutes after having bought their ticket, because of a succession of trains keeping the crossing closed. The pedestrian lights are controlled independently of the road gates which are shut around two minutes before the train arrives, while pedestrians are allowed to cross until 25 seconds before through a gate with no latch or lock.

I accept there is a risk whatever is done here. If the light on the pedestrian gates goes red too early, then people will be tempted to ignore it; if, as is the case, they are left open while the road is barred, then pedestrians get into the habit of crossing the tracks while the barriers are shut. Closing the pedestrian gate permanently is a nonstarter too, as that would force people on to a dangerous road.

The whole feel of the crossing was something out of the Railway Children fi lm, perfectly suitable for a branch line with a few trains per day, but not for a busy line with up to eight trains an hour including freight. In the hour and a half that I was there, the gates were shut six times including once for three trains.

It does seem that some simple measures could have been taken – and probably now will – that would mitigate risks cheaply. The gate could have been electronically linked with the red light, preventing people from opening it. The risk that passengers would have been trapped by the closing gate could be mitigated by providing more space between the tracks and the gate.

The Railway Standards and Safety Board is developing a methodology to assess the risks, and that must be the best way to proceed in reducing the dangers of the roadrail interface, which is widely recognised as the biggest risk to both passengers and road users. Level crossings are now risk-assessed by Network Rail every three years. The RSSB has just produced a report on the risks at barrow and station crossings (available under recent publications on its website) which includes Elsenham.

The report is critical of the lack of clear methodology when assessing risk at such crossings and when calculating whether it is worth spending the money to reduce risk. It concludes: “This lack of knowledge [about such crossings] means that there is currently a poor basis for further improvements to risk management processes.” Network Rail, after much hassling, tells me that the risk assessment carried out in April found the crossing ‘adequate’ and that it required no action. However, when I went up there with The Sun with the list of risk factors set out in the report, I was appalled at just how many boxes got ticks. They include: utilisation by pedestrians (which appeared high); frequency of trains (ditto); speed of trains (70mph); sighting lines (the track curves 170 yards away from the gate, allowing just over fi ve seconds to see the train); ‘locational diversions’ (such as the busy road); and human factors (there was a history of misuse and the location of the ticket offi ce encouraged that).

Virtually all the dozen factors mentioned in the assessment applied to some degree. The RSSB suggests that plotting line speed against train frequency gives a rough estimate of risk, and Elsenham would certainly feature high on such a graph. Add all the other factors in, and it seems an obvious high risk.

I accept that my views are not scientifi c and that each risk has to be scored and assessed mathematically. However, there is, too, a role for gut instinct and that is sometimes lost in the fug of rules, procedures and regulation that now govern everything on the railway. Just one glance at the crossing with its badly painted wobbly line on the tracks and the cute little latch-less wicket gate, which offers no hint of the dangers posed by the location, should be enough to make any concerned railway manager gasp in disbelief. However, the ability of local managers to make decisions based on their knowledge and experience rather than laiddown rules has long been lost.

There were suggestions from Network Rail that by co-operating with The Sun I was pandering to the safety Taliban and helping to make the railway even more unaffordable. Not so. The principle of making risk ‘as low as reasonably possible’ seems not to have applied sensibly here. I suspect there will be major changes at Elsenham, too late for the two girls. I know the railways are subject to a safety regime which is sometimes too onerous, but that does not mean lapses should be excused.

There is a wider issue here. In reality, the layout is so unsatisfactory that the whole crossing needs to be replaced, not just the pedestrian access. A bridge over an electrifi ed line would cost millions but why should the railway have to pay? NR has successfully pushed an amendment on to the Railway Safety Bill which would mean that it will be possible to force highways authorities to take measures to reduce level crossing risks. Other amendments will result in higher penalties for offences at level crossings and bridge-bashing. Network Rail is to be commended for pushing these changes through in the face of ministerial opposition but the government has yet to decide what to do, saying there is no need for them. This tragedy and its publicity may change their minds. Mystic Wolmar falls fl at Over the years, Mystic Wolmar has consistently hit the mark, with most of his predictions being realised or at least in the right ball-park. Not this time. Here are this year’s bunch, a sorry catalogue of what did not happen in 2005:

  • GNER will lose the East Coast franchise despite its good record because First will be much cheaper, but will be tossed ‘Integrated Kent’ as compensation.
  • A civil servant will be appointed to head the new Department for Transport rail group because no one else will take the job at the offered salary of up to £120,000.
  • Neither the Labour nor Tory manifesto will contain a word about the railways…
  • Labour will win the election with a 30-seat overall majority…
  • …and whatever the result, Alistair Darling will have a new job. 

    Well, GNER did win the franchise, and Govia won the Kent one. Nul points. Mike Mitchell was not a civil servant before heading the directorate and Labour mentioned a high-speed rail link. Still nul points. Labour won with twice that majority and Alistair is still there. A total of nul points, though if you are being kind, Labour is still in power and the Tories did not mention the railways, so maybe a half. There is no alternative except for Mystic Wolmar to go on his knees to the editor and ask if he can use a crystal ball for 2006 – or otherwise he will be sent to the scrapyard.