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ATSB releases level crossing heavy vehicle safety study

The ATSB has unveiled its safety study into level crossing incidents involving heavy vehicles, with obstructions and heavy vehicle designs being part of certain incidents

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has completed and released its safety study into the risks associated with level crossing collisions, particularly involving heavy vehicles.

The study was released ahead of the national rail level crossing safety roundtable on March 6 and sets out to compare the severity of level crossing collisions involving heavy road vehicles to those involving light road vehicles.

The research, detailed in the final report, uses qualitative and quantitative methods to analyse data from both Australia and the United States, including a review of all reported level crossing collisions involving heavy vehicles in Australia from July 2014 to August 2022.

“The analysis confirmed collisions involving heavy road vehicles are more common, and more dangerous, than those involving light vehicles,” ATSB chief commissioner Angus Mitchell says.

Mitchell says on a ‘per vehicle’ and ‘per kilometre travelled’ basis, heavy vehicles are more frequently involved in level crossing collisions than cars and other light vehicles.

“Level crossing collisions involving heavy vehicles were more likely to lead to injuries to the occupants of rail vehicles, to damage to rail vehicles and track, and to the derailment of rail vehicles,” Mitchell says.

The study identified several themes in the 49 level crossing collisions involving heavy vehicles in Australia from July 2014 to August 2022.

These included that, in at least 12 collisions, the heavy vehicle driver had regularly used the level crossing prior to the collision with the train. In at least 14 of the collisions, the heavy vehicle driver’s view of the track or level crossing protection equipment was obstructed by vegetation, the design of the heavy vehicle cab, poor crossing lighting or sun glare.

In at least 14 accidents, it was also likely that the heavy vehicle driver intentionally entered the level crossing in a manner contrary to road rules. Even in these instances, the intention was still to proceed through the crossing prior to the train’s arrival.

The study found that in a large majority of accidents at passively controlled crossings (crossings without flashing lights or boom gates), the heavy vehicle driver did not detect the train, or detected the train too late to avoid a collision.

“Safety at passive crossings relies on motor vehicle drivers looking for and identifying trains, and the collisions analysed in our study primarily resulted from the presence of trains not being detected, being detected late, or being perceived incorrectly,” Mitchell says.

“We know that humans are inherently susceptible to unintentional errors. So long as passively controlled level crossing safety systems rely on road vehicle drivers always detecting the presence of trains, it is certain that this will fail from time to time and result in accidents in the future.”

Mitchell says the use of additional engineering controls to alert road users to the need to stop would almost certainly provide an enhanced level of safety at level crossings.

“Safety improvements would be made by reducing the reliance on road vehicle drivers detecting the presence of trains,” Mitchell says.

From this safety study, Standards Australia has also committed to reviewing the standard AS1742.7 to determine if additional design guidance for the installation of level crossing protection equipment can be provided to manage risks associated with curved road approaches to level crossings.

Mitchell notes the ATSB is also currently investigating two heavy vehicle level crossing collisions, one near Katherine, in the Northern Territory, where two train drivers were injured, and the second near Cutana, South Australia, where two train drivers were fatally injured.

“I urge industry and government to review the findings of our safety study, and look forward to working with stakeholders at the roundtable in Brisbane,” Mitchell says.

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