New Zealand’s questionable track record on level crossings

In my last post in which I talked about some of the issues I am interested in, I raised the question of level crossing safety in New Zealand. We have had a varied record going from a point where the issue was taken seriously enough to go for all out elimination on new railway construction, to the today where the national railway network operator and roading authorities are engaged in buck passing, obfuscating and whitewashing the safety issues at many of our level crossings.

A little history and I am writing from my own historical knowledge, not being aware at the moment of any reference sources I could quote from. Many of our early railway lines were built pre-1900 when the population of this country was much less and the only viable forms of transport were bicycles or horses and carts/traps. With the lower average vehicle speeds on the roads and fewer people, crossings were not so much of an issue. But with the introduction of motorised transport becoming a reality in the early 20th century, safety risks became a real consideration for the power that be and so real efforts were made to eliminate level crossings. A few examples in railway construction:

  • The duplication and raising of the railway from Dunedin to Mosgiel eliminated about fourteen level crossings, with every one of these replaced by over or under bridges. Although several bridges have since been removed, there have been no new level crossings built.
  • Similarly the construction of the Hutt Valley Branch, as it was then known, in the 1920s from Petone to Waterloo included a large number of bridge crossings and almost no level crossings. I would probably need to do more research to see if there were any level crossings along the route or whether any have been added – it is certainly the case that some exist today. This line became the main line through to the Wairarapa in the 1950s.
  • The East Coast Main Trunk railway from Hamilton through to Taneatua, as it was originally built, also had a significant number of bridge crossings, a lot more than would be put in today.
  • Overbridges were still a priority well into the 1930s when they were routinely installed on a number of relatively low traffic crossings, examples being at Prebbleton where one was installed crossing the Southbridge Branch on the approach into the town.

Unfortunately even with the volume of traffic that we have today, actively eliminating crossings as a key traffic safety objective has been significantly downgraded. It is good to see this being recognised with a change in government but there is undoubtedly many years of catchup needed to address the years of funding shortfalls for NTZA, local roading authorities (territorial councils) and Kiwirail.

In rural areas a key issue is at T intersections where the railway crosses the side road (the vertical bar of the T). Stacking distance is the major safety issue at these crossings. This is essentially the distance between the major intersection and the level crossing. Stacking distance has two major implications for level crossing safety:

  • Where motor vehicles are approaching the intersection from the side road, if the stacking distance is too short for a long vehicle, the rear of the vehicle may foul the railway line when the vehicle is stopped at the intersection.
  • Where motor vehicles are making a right turn from the main road onto the side road, if the traffic is fast and heavy on the main road, a driver has to try to drive as quickly as they can across a gap in the oncoming traffic to avoid a collision, and then only has a short distance in which to pull up at the level crossing and stop from whatever speed they had to undertake in order to cross the highway. Since the safety risk to motor vehicle traffic from a collision with oncoming traffic in attempting to make such a turn is already well recognised, it’s incomprehensible that the danger of having to speed across and then suddenly stop in a very short distance if the lights and bells are going at the crossing – which they may not be able to see going from the intersection, especially if the train is approaching from behind them – has not been recognised.

The second case in particular is relevant to a level crossing accident just days ago at Pongakawa School Road in the Bay of Plenty, which resulted in fatalities in the vehicle that was hit by a train on the crossing. This section of highway carries over 7000 vehicles per day, which is a significant volume. The level crossing has about 700 vehicles crossing it daily, and 12 trains. Because of this, Kiwirail would regard it as a lower priority, and it had bells and lights but not barriers. However, the local people in the area regarded it as a dangerous crossing and had been lobbying for barriers. According to Kiwirail’s own figures, barriers only cost $60,000-80,000 more than bells and lights on a crossing. The stacking distance at this crossing is about 20 metres, which really only provides for a truck being able to stop at the stop sign and be clear of the tracks. It doesn’t account for the fact that the truck will have to slow down as it goes over the tracks to be able to stop in time, nor does it account for a vehicle entering the side road from the highway being able to clear the highway and stop in time before the crossing. There are obvious measures that could be taken, and increasing the stacking distance is the most important of these, others include increasing the warning distance for bells and lights for approaching trains, putting lights and bells onto the main road right-turn lane, putting a speed limit on the section of the highway approaching and surrounding the intersection to make it easier and safer to right turn, or installing traffic lights at the intersection to enable right turns to be made safely with the oncoming traffic stopped, or perhaps banning right turns altogether at some of these intersections.

One of the biggest problems in level crossing design is simply that there is no clear delineation of responsibility for the design of crossings between Kiwirail and a roading authority. This highelighted xxx

In the course of researching this article there is now a belated recognition of level crossing safety that should have a greater priority by NZTA and Kiwirail with some of the articles linked below being illustrative of this:

So I guess I will need to follow up this one sometime soon with another post. Stay tuned 🙂


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