Rail accident investigators have criticised Network Rail after a near miss at a level crossing placed car drivers and train passengers in ‘deadly’ danger.
In the incident, which happened in November 2019, the barriers at Norwich Road level crossing, near New Rackheath in Norfolk lifted as a passenger train was approaching. Two vehicles crossed in front of the train, which reached the crossing less than half a second after the second vehicle was clear.
An investigation by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) found contamination of the railhead in the area caused by leaf-fall and atmospheric conditions. This had not been removed because there were no railhead treatment trains on the line at weekends.
The narrow band on which trains’ wheels were running on the contaminated railhead, which was a consequence of the introduction of new trains, left the wheel-rail interface vulnerable to a poor electrical contact.
This caused the level crossing equipment to misinterpret the position of the train, and it opened the crossing to road traffic while the train was closely approaching.
The incident will be a severe embarrassment for Network Rail, which frequently warns drivers about the risks of ignoring warning lights at level crossings.
Simon French, Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents said: ‘All too often the interaction between road users and the railway at level crossings leads to incidents and accidents. In many cases the actions of the road user are the immediate cause, but in this alarming event, deficiencies in the way the railway equipment operated placed two car drivers, and the people on a passenger train, in deadly danger through no fault of their own.
‘Our investigation found that the installation at Norwich Road level crossing was a poor piece of engineering which had been in use for several years, and only luck had previously prevented an accident.’
He added: ‘Lessons from the trial of the crossing equipment in other locations, and from incidents involving the same equipment in service, had not been applied to the crossing at Norwich Road. It is important that the railway industry learns from this incident, and makes sure that it has effective processes in place to transfer such learning to where it is needed.’
The RAIB made three recommendations for Network Rail regarding the planning of autumn railhead treatment, guidance on the introduction of new trains and the configuration control of signalling equipment.
Network Rail and operator Greater Anglia issued a joint statement saying that the RAIB’s recommendations were consistent with their own investigations and that they accepted its recommendations, in advance of which they had already taken ‘a series of actions’.
‘These actions include installing new track circuit treadles on the approach to the crossings that provide extra safety protection and enabled us to remove speed restrictions. We’re also cutting back trees and vegetation next to 26.5km of track.'