The push to take level crossing safety ‘out of the dark ages’

After more than 20 years of campaigning for better lighting on trains to help improve level crossing safety, there’s some hope that change may finally be one step closer.

Lara Jensen’s youngest brother and two of his friends were killed on July 8, 2000, when their vehicle was struck by an unlit train at a passive level crossing in WA’s wheatbelt region.

Ever since, Lara, who is based near Mount Magnet in WA, has been tirelessly campaigning for safety upgrades at level crossings and improved lighting on trains, to enhance visibility and improve safety for all road users, including our truck drivers.

But despite numerous reports, inquiries and recommendations, nothing has been done more than two decades since the tragedy.

Christian Jensen, Jess Broad and Hilary Smith lost their lives in the tragedy.

Christian Jensen, 20, and his friends Jess Broad, 18, and Hilary Smith, 19, were killed by a wheat train near Jennacubbine in 2000. An inquest into the incident found that no one in the car had seen the train approach due to an absence of train lighting and warning signs on approach to the crossing.

“All my brother and his friends got at the rail and road interface before that crossing was a ‘give way’ sign, not even a ‘stop’ sign. And that sign was obscured by a tree anyway. It makes me angry because Christian was extremely careful and was a conscientious, experienced bush driver. He wasn’t reckless with his own life, and he certainly wasn’t reckless with anyone else’s. They just didn’t see that train,” explained Lara.

“It was a fully loaded grain train. My brother’s vehicle was pushed for over a kilometre before the train could come to a complete stop. The train driver went through a hell of a time after the accident too – and nobody should ever be put in that position. This campaign has always been about the train drivers too.

“Four precious lives (including my brother’s) were lost at one notorious crossing, and it took Main Roads WA 14 years to install warning lights there after our three were killed and 17 years after the first fatality. It’s a complete disgrace and a complete system failure we are looking at with passive level crossings in this country – from signage, vegetation clearing on approach to crossings and then throw abysmal train lighting in the mix and you’ve got the perfect storm – another catastrophic accident just waiting to happen.”

Though trucks are very heavily regulated, freight and passenger trains fall into very different territory. Road trains are required to use hazard, side and front lighting, as well as signage for oversize and dangerous goods, and escorts when required but Lara says, “Train lighting in Australia is still quite literally stuck in the dark ages.”

While regulations are in place for truck lighting, the same can’t be said for trains, and that’s despite them being longer than any vehicle on our roads. Regional and interstate freight trains can weigh between 3000 to 10,000 and can take over a kilometre to stop.

Australia is home to over 23,700 level crossings; and alarmingly, around 80 per cent of level crossings have no active protection other than ‘Stop’ or ‘Give Way’ signs.

The Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) was set up in 2013 with the aim of improving rail safety. Though the number of collisions and near-misses at level crossings hasn’t really changed.

Last year the ONRSR commissioned and released the Freight Train Visibility Review. It found that on average, there are around 14 level crossing crashes and 200 near misses around Australia each year. in the 2020-2021 financial year there were 34 level crossing collisions with vehicles resulting in four fatalities and four serious injuries.

In early 2021, two of those statistics was truckie Ethan Hunter and his work colleague Mark Fenton, who were both killed instantly when their road train collided with a freight train at a passive level crossing 70km north-west of Young, NSW.

Lara Jensen has been tirelessly campaigning for change. Photo: Stephanie Coombes

“It’s a complete joke and that’s putting it plainly. You have a regulator that is not regulating the rail industry and allows rail operators to work to a minimum standard. What I am eluding to is that the standard governing train visibility (AS7531) is a minimum standard that is not even mandatory, so rail operators don’t have to comply with it anyway. There is a massive disparity between the safety lighting standards that the road transport industry has to legally comply with compared to the flimsy safety lighting standards that are in place in the rail industry. I believe the weak governance of state and federal governments are to blame for that, in letting the rail industry get away with it. They’re powerful, they’re profitable and have never been held to account,” Lara said.

“We’re saying the regulations governing the rail industry need to be robust and they need to be mandatory just as they are in the road transport industry.”

Back in October 2001, a year after the incident that claimed the lives of Lara’s brother and his friends, then WA state coroner Alastair Hope called for immediate action to install some form of external auxiliary lighting on locomotives which would provide an effective warning to road users. But despite this, the measures were never implemented.

In the past 50 years, the only mandatory change to train lighting has been the addition of crossing or ditch lights, which are directed at the ditch and only illuminate opposite sides of the railway track.

Lara says that recommendations for better lighting on trains in WA go back to 1968, following a spate of incidents. Back then a state government report recommended the use of rotating beacons – but that was soon quashed. That’s despite rotating beacons being in use on trains in the sugar cane industry in Queensland for decades.

The memorial for the three lives lost at the Yarramony level crossing near Jennacubbine.

A group of 12 families who have lost loved ones in rail crossing incidents, including four families from WA, have been tirelessly campaigning for change.

“As the families of rail crash victims, rail companies have always had the upper hand – the power and the money but we’re fighting back. We’ve had enough of the unconscionable negligence for decades. No truck driver could ever even leave the yard with the sort of inadequate lighting trains are allowed,” Lara added.

In March last year, two of Australia’s biggest rail companies, Aurizon and Pacific National, agreed to trial new lighting on their trains in response to the nationwide campaign.

The Monash Institute of Rail Technology (MIRT) is due to release the long-awaited results of these train lighting trials next month.

Lara is cautiously optimistic that this could result in actual meaningful change in the near future. “We’re hoping this report is extremely robust and that it will dictate to the rail industry the visibility improvements it must make in order to protect the safety of the regional Australian community. We are a very battle-weary team and don’t want to see these tragedies continue to happen decade after decade because these are completely preventable tragedies that I am talking about here,” she said.

“The regulator generates an incredible amount of revenue from industry and government but as a regional Australian resident I believe we are getting a very minimal return on the regulator in terms of safety improvements and enforcement on the ground. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare. There’s always been a special arrogance in the rail industry because they know they are untouchable – they’ve never come under this much pressure.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend