Basic Safety Functions Explained: Level Crossings

Global rail networks are a key mode of transporting people and goods around the world. And since the first railways were built, level crossings have been areas of peril. In the next instalment of our educational blog series, we reveal how rail safety controllers are on track to bring in a new age of safety at level crossings.

Of 1,721 significant railway accidents that occurred in Europe in 2018, 29% took place at level crossings. Also, rail networks are expanding. There are more vehicles on the road, and modern communication and signalling technologies are potentially more vulnerable to cyberattacks than ever. This highlights the need for smart safety solutions to keep pace with an ever-involving industry.

Before we talk about the evolution of the level crossing and how modern technology ensures they operate as they should, it is important to understand exactly what they are and how they work.

On the Level

Level crossings allow pedestrians and motorists to cross the railway, providing a safe passage at a junction where the track meets the road. In urban areas, they normally have road barriers on either side that close when a train is oncoming. These are known as protected level crossings. Before passing through an unprotected level crossing – found in rural and privately-owned areas – extra vigilance is necessary. After all, some trains can take up to a mile to come to a complete stop, even after applying emergency breaks, and collisions almost always end in fatalities.

Safe railway crossing with HIMatrix safety controller

It’s also vital to remember that trains always have right-of-way at any level crossing – whether on an inner-city high street, an industrial zone, a protected crossing, or an unprotected crossing.

Next Stop: Safety

Level crossings have been acknowledged as perilous ever since the 1830s, where, in Britain, the government introduced standardized safety measures. Gates leading to the crossing could only be opened by “good and proper persons” to allow traffic to cross the track when safe.

As technology advanced, level crossing gates could be interlocked with signalling. At busy crossings where the technology couldn’t be applied, permanent gate keepers were provided accommodation. It would be their responsibility to open the gate and alert traffic.

Flash forward to today and digitization has created a quiet revolution in the rail industry. That said, the introduction of new digital systems can render lessons learned from the past useless. Electrical and mechanical commands have been replaced by autonomous and smart data transmissions. This recent development calls for improved technology reliability and standardization of regulations. Hardware and software sourced from a variety of manufacturers communicate in conflicting ways. The following CENELEC (or IEC-equivalent) standards for functional safety are in place:

  • EN 50126 (IEC 62278) for reliability, availability, maintainability, and safety (RAMS)
  • EN 50128 (IEC 622279) for software
  • EN 50129 (IEC 62425) for system safety

By adhering to these, rail operators will minimize the risks of level crossings. But this doesn’t help define the risk for motorists or pedestrians. Educating this rests in the hands of independent groups and governments.

Eradicating Human Error

Removing human error and misuse (i.e. trespassing, ignoring signals) will drastically reduce the amount of accidents that occur at level crossings. Several soft and hard measures are in place to attempt to achieve this. Individual rail groups are raising awareness, educating the public on the dangers, and investing large sums to improve level crossing safety infrastructure. Governments are obliged to hand out fines for incorrect use.

Signs are typically found on the approach to a crossing to warn drivers of the hazard ahead. Some level crossings in the UK can even alert drivers by sending a voice message to their mobile phone.

The International Union of Railways held its first European Level Crossing Forum in 2005. The workgroup brings together key stakeholders from more than 20 countries to provide best practices for improving level crossing safety management. Events like this, as well as initiatives such as EULYNX are leading the way to standardize rail operations and create a unified approach to infrastructure and safety.

Fit for the Future?

A shift in mindset is underway. Rail companies and safety providers are finding new ways to combat risks, while keeping down costs. COTS hardware and software for rail traffic management and signalling are proving their worth. In a previous blog series, we spoke about how COTS solutions are benefitting safety providers and the industry as a whole. HIMA’s HIMatrix and HIMax COTS safety controllers for the rail industry are designed with open interfaces and a standard operating system, whereby companies can enjoy greater flexibility and future-proof design.

And despite notable improvements in level crossing safety and a subsequent drop in reported incidents, a steady stream of fatal accidents worldwide proves that the issue is an ongoing battle.