Crossing safety advice ignored’

Network Rail was strongly urged to replace half-barrier level crossings like the one at Swainsthorpe - scene of the third fatal accident in 18 months this week - almost two years ago by an inquiry team looking into a similar collision, the EDP has learnt.

Network Rail was strongly urged to replace half-barrier level crossings like the one at Swainsthorpe - scene of the third fatal accident in 18 months this week - almost two years ago by an inquiry team looking into a similar collision, the EDP has learnt.It also emerged that the Health and Safety Executive has banned the controversial crossings from being used on any rail line where train speeds go above 100mph.

Yet the train that killed John White, 56, on Thursday morning was travelling at 100mph when it hit the Swainsthorpe man's Vauxhall Astra, the maximum speed allowed.

Unlike full-barrier crossings, half-barriers do not have CCTV cameras or extra signalling. At the speeds the Colchester to Norwich train was travelling, by the time the train driver spots any problem it is too late to do anything about it.

An investigation by the EDP has revealed that there are just 31 half-barrier crossings on Britain's mainlines - and that each would only cost about £100,000 to replace.

Last night local MP Richard Bacon demanded action, calling on Network Rail to spend the “tiny investment” necessary to protect people's lives and not “wash their hands” of their responsibilities.

Network Rail has a budget of about £2bn, meaning that replacing all the 31 half-barrier crossings would cost about 0.15pc of its annual expenditure.

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Mr Bacon, MP for South Norfolk, said: “These figures put this matter firmly into perspective. Upgrading these crossings would be an absolutely tiny investment for Network Rail compared with the size of the organisation.

“At a site where three people have been killed the argument for upgrading the crossing is overwhelming, and not just in Swainsthorpe but for the other 30 sites as well.

“We can be very thankful that no one on the train died this time but there is always an enormous risk to passengers in collisions at these speeds and Network Rail cannot be allowed to wash their hands of their responsibilities, claiming the problem lies with drivers.”

There are about 7,700 level crossings on Britain's rail network, of which 458 are of the automated half-barrier variety, introduced 50 years ago in 1957.

Thirty-one of those are found on mainlines where trains can travel at 100mph, even though the Health and Safety Executive does not permit that type of barrier on lines where speeds get any higher.

That is because half-barriers are designed to lower at the last possible moment and do not include any CCTV equipment - meaning that by the time a train driver is close enough to see there is a problem, it is almost certainly too late to prevent a collision.

By contrast full barriers come down sooner and include equipment that allows signalmen to see on a monitor if there is a problem at the crossing from far enough away to slow the train down in time.

In November 2004, a train travelling at 100mph through Ufton in Berkshire hit a stationary car at an automated half-barrier and derailed, killing seven people.

A report published in June 2005 by the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) described how half-barriers offer “no protection afforded by the railway signalling system” and called for Network Rail “to give a higher priority to seeking closure”.

It said: “Safety at automatic half-barrier installations depends totally on the discipline of the road users. A consequence of its design is that once the train has initiated the crossing sequence it is not likely the driver will be able to avoid a collision even if he can see the crossing is obstructed.

“The panel has considered how the risk to road and rail users at AHB crossings might be reduced. Closure is the safest option.”

The safety board has also launched the National Level Crossing Safety Group to pressure the government into modernising crossings.

In its first report, published last September, it said: “The current level crossing legislation in Britain is fragmented, complex and in some cases outdated. In particular, the process for closing or modernising public level crossings is unduly restrictive and long.”

Jonathan Denby, spokesman for One Railway, said it was not for the company to call for Network Rail to upgrade half-barrier crossings- but said that the safety of level crossings needed to be addressed.

Philip Haigh, business editor of leading specialists Rail Magazine, said: “Full-barrier crossings are safer - but they are also more expensive. It's an unpalatable debate but the question is, how much are you prepared to spend to save a life?

“It's a fine balance - half-barrier crossings stop cars waiting so long for trains to pass. You can find some roads with full-barrier crossings where the barrier is down more than it is up.

“With the cost of the CCTV, the cost of new signalling and associated work, upgrading crossings cost £100,000-plus, which is not a trifling amount.

“But the majority of deaths on the rails are caused by motorists misusing half-barrier level crossings and upgrading them would certainly save lives.”