Another train coming

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2012

Michael Woods, head of operations and management research at the RSSB, considers the importance of vocal warnings to improve safety at level crossings.

Accidents at level crossings are often covered in the news even though they are relatively rare compared to those occurring on the rest of the road network.

Compared to other countries in the rest of Europe and beyond, Great Britain’s record of managing – and reducing – the risk is very good and getting better. But every case of an accidental injury or a fatality is a human tragedy and RSSB has been active in supporting Network Rail and its partners in the road sector in their efforts to reduce accidents still further.

Most peoples’ mental image of a level crossing accident will involve road vehicles, a busy road, fl ashing lights, barriers or gates, and, inevitably, a train. But actually most level crossing fatalities are to pedestrians. Some of these will be on roads and at crossings with full protection, but most actually occur at footpaths or farm crossings, frequently away from a built-up area.

The Road-Rail Interface Safety Group, which is chaired by Network Rail, has members from the highways and rail sectors, the British Transport Police and the Offi ce of Rail Regulation and is facilitated by RSSB. It acts as the sponsor for research into level crossing issues, which is managed by RSSB as part of the industry research & development programme.

Over the last few years the emphasis of this research has gradually moved towards consideration of the risk to pedestrians as well as road vehicle accidents which can, of course, also lead to a serious train accident.

One of the first of these pedestrian studies looked at the risk to people, often but not always individuals, using crossings at or next to railway stations. At these crossings in addition to the typical level crossing risk issues there is also often the issue of distraction caused by people being in a hurry to catch a train.

A related study looked at users deceived by the fact that they had seen one train pass but who were not aware of the possibility that there could be another train coming.

RSSB research project T652, ‘Examining the benefi ts of ‘another train coming’ warnings at level crossings’, investigated a number of possible ways of delivering the message that another train is coming: static signs (plated signs), dynamic signs, audible warnings and certain combinations of these.

The project investigated which might be the most benefi cial solutions under which circumstances, e.g. the type of crossing and its closeness to a station, and how practicable the solutions might be. It recommended that for audible warnings there ought to be a warble for one train and a higher pitched more quickly oscillating warble plus a spoken warning once the second train is detected. This research involved the various solutions being assessed by a panel of over 600 people to gain an understanding of their potential effectiveness.

Drawing on RSSB’s research, upgraded audible warnings using a warble and spoken alarm when a second train is detected are to be installed by Network Rail at 63 of its crossings. It is hoped that these clearer instructions will reduce the risk from someone mistakenly believing that it is safe to cross after the fi rst train has passed.

The first few of these warnings are being rolled out across the London North East route near York at Hunmanby Station, Nether Lane, Nafferton, Cranswick and Arram level crossings and near Selby at Wressle and Eastrington and more are set to follow.

Meanwhile RSSB has just started work on a wider research project to understand the underlying reasons of why pedestrian accidents happen at level crossings. It is known that a series of common factors have characterised many of the most recent accidents; older people, dog walkers, other leisure walkers, vulnerable people (but generally, not children) and people hurrying to catch a train.

Most recently the number of cases with people using mobile phones, listening to music on portable electronic devices or otherwise distracted, has increased (see panel). All these factors, and other issues which emerge, will be studied together in an important strand of research into how a decision point can be indicated to pedestrians. This work is expected to take between one and two years to complete and is complementary to research projects into how to improve the signs at public road and private crossings.

All in all the whole portfolio of research is designed to support Network Rail, train operators and highway managers to further reduce risk and successfully drive down the number of accidents at level crossings.

Safety campaign calls for public to ‘lose your headphones’

Network Rail has launched a new safety campaign urging people to remove headphones at level crossings so they are not distracted from warnings about approaching trains.

The ‘Lose your Headphones’ campaign is using digital media to spread the safety message, with celebrity endorsement from rapper Professor Green.

This year, two people thought to have been wearing headphones have died at level crossing footpaths. In the past five years, railway staff have reported 19 incidents where joggers, cyclists or pedestrians have crossed the railway wearing headphones, despite an approaching train.

Martin Gallagher, Network Rail’s head of level crossings said: “People wear headphones all the time nowadays; on the train, walking down the street, and even cycling or in the shops.

“We think though that there are times when it makes sense to stop the music and devote your full attention to where you’re going.

“Trains can travel up to 125mph on the main British rail network and even with safety warnings such as lights and signs at footpaths across the tracks, it’s easy to get distracted if you’re caught up with your favourite tune. If Professor Green is asking people to stop listening to his music just for a few minutes, we hope people will listen up, lose their headphones, and not their lives.” Dr Bruno Fazenda from the Acoustics Research Centre at the University of Salford said: “Hearing is the only sense that can warn us of dangers we can’t see and when listening to music with headphones we become isolated and are less likely to hear sounds that might tell us of approaching dangers.

“It’s not just the volume of the music but also because the headphone itself blocks out ambient noise.

“There is also plenty of evidence which shows that when you are doing two activities at the same time, such as listening to music or texting and crossing a railway track, your attention gets divided in such a way that you might not notice an approaching train even if all the warning signals are there.”

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