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Railways: Level Crossings

Volume 736: debated on Thursday 15 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they are giving to Network Rail’s efforts to improve safety at railway level crossings.

My Lords, overall, level crossing safety performance is currently high and an industry safety framework exists to manage risks. The legal duties for safety at level crossings lie with Network Rail as the safety duty holder, while their monitoring and enforcement are the responsibility of the Office of Rail Regulation. We welcome Network Rail’s continuous efforts to reduce risks and improve level crossing safety.

My Lords, I take it that the Minister accepts that rail travel is now safer than it has ever been, and that the greatest risk on the railway now comes from user-worked crossings and from motorists and other road users running red lights or weaving around barriers. British Transport Police advises us that last year there were 2,637 cases of people failing to obey traffic signals at level crossings. Can the Minister assure us that shortage of funds will not stop Network Rail installing the latest technology at the 600 riskiest user-worked crossings? Secondly, what are the Government doing to support the trialling and introduction of red light enforcement cameras? Is he aware that the Home Office is taking up to 24 months to test and approve a product for railway level crossings that is already in widespread use on A roads and motorways?

My Lords, the noble Lord has asked quite a few questions. User-worked crossings are indeed very hazardous. There are 2,500 of them and they are often used as farm crossings. He also asked about their financing. It can be very difficult to build a good business case because of the low risk of an accident occurring at each individual crossing. He also asked me about the trialling of cameras. I am aware of this problem. Similar problems arise in respect of roadside drug-testing equipment. It is important to recognise that approval of this equipment is an important component of our legal system. I understand that the British Transport Police has not yet submitted a formal application. For my sins I am the Home Office spokesman and I will draw this matter to the attention of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

I am sure my noble friend will agree that level crossings represent the largest risk of a serious rail accident occurring. Will he please give the House an assurance that the Government will look at the procedures for closing level crossings? Such closures are usually opposed by highway authorities down to the Ramblers’ Association and with 100 organisations in between, and yet many could be closed without serious detriment to public convenience. If he would do that I would be very much obliged.

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to this serious risk, which is why Network Rail pays so much attention to it. It is important to understand that we have far and away the best record on this matter in Europe, with the exception of Ireland, which is only slightly better. In this control period Network Rail will close around 556 crossings. I imagine that many of these are footpath or farm crossings. However, providing just a footbridge costs £750,000. It is very hard to construct a robust business case given the very low chance of an accident occurring at any particular crossing. Network Rail is trying to reduce the cost of these bridges. It is important to understand that where the risk is known to be higher, a crossing system with increased protection will already have been installed.

My Lords, after the court judgment against Network Rail in February over deaths that occurred on a level crossing, the executives donated their bonuses to a charity to promote level crossing safety. Is the safety of our railways to be dependent on such quixotic gestures, or should the people responsible for the safety of the railways make sure they do a proper job?

My Lords, the biggest problem with level crossing safety is the behaviour of pedestrians, particularly when they get distracted. All four fatalities that occurred last year were behaviour-related and almost exclusively involved a distraction problem. The best thing that Network Rail can do is to educate people, so that sounds like rather a good strategy on its part.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the legislation regarding people who deliberately flout the regulations on level crossings is sufficiently draconian?

My Lords, the noble Viscount’s question links in very well with that of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner. It is of course a very serious motoring offence to zigzag around the barriers, but you need to have the evidence to prosecute. The noble Viscount makes a good point, and that is what we are working on.