Rail crossing investigation exposes unsafe driving and under-investment

By: Jason Whittaker

A report into railway level crossings has exposed dangerous truck driving practices and has called for increased investment by governments

A report into railway level crossings has exposed dangerous truck driving practices and has called for increased investment by governments to reduce the risk of train and road vehicle collisions.

After investigating 12 crossing accidents between April 2006 and December 2007, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) found the primary cause of accidents that involved truck drivers was due to a failure to give way or to drive while fatigued.

Of the 12 accidents investigated, which included the accident at Kerang which killed 11 and injured 20, nine involved heavy road vehicles.

The ATSB found in the case of a rail accident at Lismore that the driver of a B-double did not slow down to compensate for heavy fog surrounding the area.

"It is clear that the truck was not being driven according to the environmental conditions at the time and, tragically, the truck driver saw the train at the crossing too late to stop," the report says.

But even when visibility is fine, drivers are not necessarily willing to reduce their speed or stop, with ATSB finding the driver who collided with a train at the Ghan ignored the stop sign because he thought he knew the train timetable and that one was not due to pass when he went over the track.

The accident also highlighted that rolling stops, rather than complete stops, were common practice around rail tracks, with the driver involved in the accident saying he did not abide by the stop sign.

Although noting that rolling stops are ideal in certain situations to reduce transmission stress, the report criticised their application around level crossings.

"A stop sign at a level crossing means that motorists must stop to be able to adequately sight a train and thus avoid collision," it says.

But while attributing the majority of accidents to the failure of drivers to give way or obey traffic conditions, ATSB also called for state and territory governments to do more.

"In addition, road and rail regulators in every state need to ensure unnecessary level crossings are eliminated and those that remain are as safe as possible and in compliance with the relevant Australian standards," the report says.

According to ATSB, a number of rail level crossing investigations have revealed a lack of compliance in regards to acceptable standards and insufficient measures to enable drivers to effectively see a train from a distance.

This, says Australian Trucking Association (ATA) Chief Executive Stuart St Clair, is proof governments must invest more in rail level crossings.

He has used the report to promote a wish list of upgrades, which includes installing rumble strips and reducing vision-restrictive clutter, improving sight lines, reducing train speeds and installing flashing lights and boom gates on crossings deemed to be high risk.

St Clair says it is important jurisdictions upgrade crossings frequented by road trains, which consist of a prime mover and four trailers.

He says a road train measuring 53.5 metres takes 71 seconds to go over a crossing by which time a high speed train may travel more than 2km.

"In other words, there is nothing a truck driver of a 53.5 metre road train could do to avoid an accident if he or she started across the level crossing at the wrong time," St Clair says.

"The states and territories must upgrade Australia’s level crossings to reduce the chance that a simple mistake could lead to a catastrophic accident."

However, St Clair also agreed with the report’s findings that truck drivers must take greater care when approaching, as well crossing, rail level crossings.

"It’s also imperative that trucking operators have safety systems in place to remind drivers about the importance of level crossing safety," he says.

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