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May 27, 2016

Level Crossings: Is it time to stop building the case for change in safety terms?

There's an old saying "a stitch in time saves nine". It's a sage piece of advice to address a problem early or face a much bigger problem in the future.

On the face of it it's certainly difficult to disagree, but the reality is, several problems at level crossings have been left to grow for many years and may well have been placed in the 'too difficult' box prematurely. This is partly due to other higher priority problems on the railway acting as a magnet for investment and when compared to road accidents it's not difficult to understand why the road authorities have minimal interest in level crossing safety. Safety is of course a major concern but collisions and derailments are thankfully rare and fatal accident numbers are relatively low in many countries. This doesn't mean that there isn't a long list of problems to address, that will get worse, and lots of development opportunities to resolve many legacy issues and to improve on what there is currently. It just means that the case for change has become too narrow.

Level crossings have largely become a reactive safety issue and not part of a roadmap to enabling both rail and roads to operate more efficiently. It seems that continuing to focus on level crossings in safety terms and in trying to use this to make the case for investment and change we are missing a bigger opportunity and building a weaker business case and brand for a call to action.

The Department for Transport's 'National Transport Model' forecasts road traffic to grow in the UK by 46% by 2040. Global vehicle sales increased by 3.5% last year and the International Energy Agency has forecasted numbers of vehicles to double to 1.7 billion by 2035. The growth in demand for rail is also international. The European Commissioner responsible for Transport recently reported tremendous growth rates in passenger and freight since the mid nineties in countries like France (+37%), Sweden (+42%), UK (70%) and Belgium (26%).

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicts the global population to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years and to increase from 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050.

Intelligent transport systems, driverless vehicles and the crave for big data is both interesting and exciting and will transform smart cities and intermodal networks. As will longer trains, lighter trains, faster trains, more trains, more railways and increased emphasis on the passenger experience.

What clearly hasn't been thought through is what happens when road meets rail. It's a simple equation; more cars, more trains, more people, equals greater demand on level crossings. More congestion, delays, longer road closure times, increased waiting times, maximum and reduced line speeds, greater impact on train performance, more dissatisfied rail commuters and operators, more frustrated motorists and pedestrians, more accidents, human factors, increased workload, greater risk, more investment...

Perhaps it's time to adjust the brand and think about level crossings not just in safety terms but in terms of what problems they are storing up and how they will become a barrier to efficient and effective transportation by road and rail if they are not part of the big picture solution. 


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