Over the past decade, addressing safety around Australia’s numerous level crossings has been a priority for state governments, with the likes of the Victorian government introducing a widespread level crossing removal plan around the state. The need for level crossing safety measures intensified following a New Year’s Eve incident where two train drivers collided with a heavy vehicle in South Australia and tragically passed away.
Courtesy of calls from Australian Trucking Association (ATA) chair David Smith and Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) assistant national secretary Shayne Kummerfeld, these calls for a national level crossing safety focus are now being heard by the federal government.
National Transport Research Organisation (NTRO) rail executive director Natalie Loughborough says that, with more than 23,000 level crossings across Australia, there is no silver bullet to fixing the Australian level crossing safety problem.
“Safety is paramount in any environment where we are looking at interactions that involve road and rail vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians,” Loughborough told ATN.
“As an organisation, we believe it’s concerning if there are any incidents or accidents at level crossings, the vision towards zero is where we want to be.”
TrackSafe Foundation executive director Heather Neil says the removal of all these crossings is an unrealistic possibility. Loughborough says that if one crossing per week was removed, it would still take 500 years to remove every crossing.
Despite this figure, states such as Victoria have put in place projects to help remove level crossings. Across all of Melbourne, it has so far removed 74 level crossings since 2015, with the aim of removing 110 level crossings by 2030.
“This project removes the risk to drivers, pedestrians, the train driver and the rail workers who obviously are also involved in incidents when they occur,” Neil told ATN.
While Victoria has put in the work, the level crossing toll across Australia remains high. Between July 1, 2014, and December 31, 2022, the NTRO found that there’s been 322 collisions, 49 serious injuries and 39 fatalities at these crossings involving either pedestrians or vehicles. On top of this, there were more than 7,839 near hits during that period.
Loughborough says a multi-disciplinary approach is key into reducing these figures. The multi-modal approach is something that the NTRO is taking onboard through its research into this issue.
Amongst its wide range of research includes looking into train visibility at level crossings on behalf of the Office of National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) in 2021. Through this research, the NTRO, known back then as the Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation, found 30 potential controls to improve level crossing visibility.
Under the NTRO title, it has also evaluated the integration of augmented and secondary augmented level crossing warning systems, particularly for regional areas. CCTV footage and NTRO’s technology assets have also been used to capture and assess activity impacting level crossing safety.
“There’s a whole host of different pieces of work that the NTRO have done with a lot of partners and industry suppliers to provide the best solutions,” Loughborough says.
On the other hand, Neil says that a holistic approach needs to be taken to remove the risk associated with level crossings. Neil says that using new innovative technologies, such as a laser alert system, is key into increasing level crossing safety along with improving visibility.
One company using innovation and technology has been Rio Tinto. Neil says at Rio Tinto’s iron ore site in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, it uses a wide range of technology to help detect if someone is within a level crossing on the route.
Organisations such as the TrackSAFE Foundation and the RTBU have also called on a different approach from law enforcement into penalising drivers who fail to obey level crossing laws. Neil says law enforcement is essential in the government’s approach of improving level crossing safety.
“There’s not as much enforcement at level crossings as we would like to see. Anything more is going to be beneficial,” Neil says.
Loughborough says that there’s a place for enforcement, but it needs to start with a more educational approach to help people make the right decisions in the first place. An improved educational and enforcement approach has been recognised in the federal government’s new National Level Crossing Safety Strategy.
Solutions, such as leveraging innovative technology and identifying early, low-cost and effective safety improvements, were also identified. Developing data and increasing coordination and knowledge shared by those responsible for level crossing safety was also a part of the strategy’s agenda.
A level crossing safety roundtable to be held in Brisbane was also announced. Neil, along with TrackSAFE and ARA chair member Danny Broad, have welcomed this announcement. Despite this, both Neil and Broad say more needs to be done by the rail industry and government beforehand.
“The importance of railway crossing safety cannot be overstated. Everyone deserves to arrive home safely,” Broad says.
“We welcome the opportunity to participate in the upcoming roundtable, but a shared approach needs to be the starting point.”