CR 217: Prospects for improving the conspicuity of trains at passive railway crossings (2003)


The problem of collisions at railway crossings is an on-going one for rail operators, track providers and regulators and road authorities in Australia. While the number of deaths and injuries is small in comparison to other road casualties and has been reduced considerably in recent years, they are the most serious safety issue faced by the rail system in Australia.

The genesis of the present project was at a special meeting of the Australian Transport Council (ATC) on 8 August 2002 that considered the outcome of recent tests of locomotive auxiliary lighting. It was agreed at that meeting that the SCOT Rail Group, in consultation with the rail industry, develop a strategic approach to managing the full range of level crossing issues. It was further agreed that Austroads and Rail Group were to review available research on train lighting and visibility and report back to ATC at its meeting on 8 November 2002 on the need for any further research. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau was required to produce this review on behalf of Austroads and Rail Group, and has commissioned ARRB Transport Research Ltd to undertake the work.

The essential purpose of the present report is therefore to advise on the need for, the feasibility of, and the potential benefits of, further research into train lighting and conspicuity that will deliver significant reduction in road safety trauma.

Number of collisions and their associated costs

In the period 1996-2000, it is estimated that approximately 36 crashes per year occurred at passive crossings throughout Australia. These crashes resulted in an average of four deaths and six serious injuries per year. The average annual cost of collisions at railway level crossings was estimated to be at least $24.8 million for all crossings, including $16.3 million for active crossings and $8.3 million for passive crossings. As fatality data for NSW were not available, these estimates were based on the assumption that the distribution of injury outcomes for NSW is similar to that in other states. The estimates are regarded as minimums, since the data for South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory were incomplete. They are based on personal injuries recorded in the road crash system and do not reflect the major losses to the rail system that can occur as a result of a collision with a road vehicle. Rail system loss data are not kept in a systematic manner by all rail operators. Data that were obtained indicated very high losses associated with some incidents. The fatality rate at level crossings per 100,000 population is considerably lower in Australia than in the United States and Finland.

Case for improving train conspicuity

Since there are fewer locomotives (approximately 2300) than passive crossings (approximately 6000), and since locomotive lighting treatments are likely to cost less than even the low-budget active warning systems currently being trialled, treating locomotives appears to be an attractive option. Increasing the conspicuity of locomotives would cost far less than providing active treatments at all passive crossings. However, there is presently insufficient research evidence to estimate the proportion of collisions at passive crossings that would be prevented by such treatments. While available data suggests that active warnings would reduce crashes by more than 60 per cent (Schulte 1976), it is not possible to say by how much increased conspicuity would reduce collisions.

Vehicle/train collisions

Under Australian conditions, approximately 70% of collisions occur during daylight and 30% occur at night. Daytime collisions also predominate in the US, but the difference between daytime and night-time crash occurrence is less marked than in Australia.

In Australia, approximately 65% of crashes involve trains running into road vehicles and 35% involve road vehicles running into the side of trains.

Seven contributing factors related to the driver of the road vehicle have been identified:

  • Not detecting the crossing
  • Stalling
  • Not detecting the train
  • Being distracted
  • Inaccurate expectancies
  • Deliberate risk taking
  • Misjudging train speed.

There are very few cases of stalled vehicles on the tracks, and deliberate risk taking is not possible unless the driver has already seen the train. The important contributing factors are, on the one hand, not detecting the train, to which distraction and inaccurate expectancies regarding the presence of a train may contribute; and on the other hand, misjudging the speed of the train. It is not known to what extent each of these factors contributes to collisions at railway level crossings. It seems inherently unlikely that adding more lights to the train would result in more accurate (or at least more cautious) perceptions of train speed. This leaves cases which involve not detecting the train, distraction and expectations that a train will not be present as events where adverse outcomes could be avoided by better train conspicuity. Unfortunately, it is not possible to say what proportion of cases this involves, or by how much increased conspicuity (assuming effective increases in conspicuity were possible) is likely to reduce this.

Lighting standards

The Australian Rail Operations Unit, in consultation with the rail industry, is in the process of developing a draft Code of Practice for the Defined Interstate Rail Network to provide uniform guidance for the design and construction of rolling stock. The relevant volume of the Code includes provisions for lighting and reflectorised material on trains. The draft code has mandatory provisions for headlights and road visibility lights, which are similar to crossing lights. Reflectors are optional, but where provided the reflective sheeting must be to Class 1A standard and there are mandatory provisions for minimum dimension, placement and colour.

The present report discusses characteristics of different lighting systems and puts forward an outline for the development of photometric models to predict the relative visibility of different lighting treatments.

Empirical studies of the effectiveness of auxiliary lighting treatments are reviewed. There is evidence to suggest that all auxiliary lighting treatments are effective and increase detectability or improve estimations of time to arrival compared to headlights alone. A study for the US Federal Railroad Administration showed that crossing lights were the most effective treatment. Studies have also shown that strobe lights can improve detection when added to locomotives previously equipped with headlights alone. However, a recent study for Western Australian Government Railways indicated that a single strobe light did not improve detection when added to locomotives already fitted with both headlights and crossing lights.

Possible means of improving train conspicuity

It is possible that daytime crashes might be reduced by adding coloured strobe lights or by selection of colour schemes which better contrast with the background against which locomotives on particular lines are viewed.

Although reflectorised panels may be effective in improving conspicuity, they may not be effective at crossings where the road does not cross the rail track at right angles. Selfilluminated devices, similar to those currently available as road delineators (also known as cats eyes), may be a viable alternative.

Conduct of future research

If it is decided that the scale of the problem and the potential benefits warrant further research, then it is recommended that the following procedure be followed. Future research should proceed first by careful modelling of the photometric properties of proposed conspicuityenhancing treatments. Only once there is a solid case established that a treatment has a high probability of succeeding should any field work be undertaken. The photometric modelling will probably have to be supplemented by photometric measurements and some tests with subjects using real-life visibility aids on a static locomotive to provide data for the modelling process, resolve issues which cannot be resolved theoretically and confirm the predictions of the models. The cost of the photometric modelling exercise is estimated at $75,000 and the supplementary program of measurements and tests at $15,000 to $45,000. A study of the safety margins allowed by drivers when crossing in front of a train would cost approximately $105,000, including equipment and a pilot study to confirm the feasibility of the method. The total program of recommended research would cost up to $225,000.

Evaluation of the effectiveness of conspicuity treatments in terms of crash reductions will not be practical, due to the small number of crashes available for comparison, unless the proportion of crashes prevented by the treatment is exceptionally high.

Download Complete Document: Lev_Cross_3 [PDFPDF: 392 KB]

Type: Research and Analysis Report
Sub Type: Consultant Report
Author(s): Cairney P
ISBN: 0642 25505 9
ISSN: 1445-4467
Topics: Rail crossings, Visual
Publication Date: 01/01/03