Truck drivers charged over level crossing crashes, as calls for safety reforms ramp up

Lobby groups argue that their repeated calls for better lighting on trains and improved level crossing standards have been ignored, following the release a redrafted industry safety standard.

Lara Jensen, spokeswoman for the Improve Train Lighting and Level Crossing Safety Group, which represent the families of rail crash victims, says the Rail Industry and Safety Standards Board (RISSB), has refused to support repeated calls for train lighting reform, despite numerous coroners and multiple trials indicating they can prevent crashes and save lives.

She says the redraft lacks essential safety features such as flashing beacon lights on trains, which the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) has also advocated for.

“It is nothing short of a disgrace that RISSB has chosen to ignore multiple submissions from road safety groups, road transport associations, community organisations and independent professionals that all recommended better lighting and provided the justification for their use to improve safety for all road users,” explained Jensen.

“At a minimum, all rolling stock should be visible to the standard of trucks. Side lighting is mandatory for trucks, as are flashing beacon lights when trucks are oversize. Both should be legally enforced for trains as the heaviest and most dangerous vehicles that road users interact with, and as a vehicle that cannot swerve or stop in any proximity to the time that trucks can.”

This push comes at the same time as two truck drivers have been charged over separate collisions at level crossings.

A 75-year-old truck driver has been charged with two counts of causing death by dangerous driving following a crash on New Year’s Eve that killed two train drivers near the South Australia/NSW.

The collision took place on the Barrier Highway at Bindarrah, with the two train drivers, aged 48 and 57 – both from Port Augusta – dying at the scene

The truck driver was taken to the Broken Hill Hospital and treated for minor injuries.

According to police, the impact of the crash caused the trains to catch fire, with several of the carriages derailing and blocking the entire highway. An official safety investigation was launched.

Following the fatal New Year’s Eve collision, major rail freight operator Pacific National said urgent level crossing reform was necessary in order to save lives.

Pacific National says this is in addition to hundreds of near miss incidents that occur at level-crossings each year.

It is calling for a national supply chain safety summit bringing together government and industry to renew focus, encourage concrete actions to address safety and change behaviour.

Proposed topics for discussion and immediate action at the summit include a full audit of the nation’s level crossings to identify at risk locations, industry-led solutions to improve behaviour and safety around level crossings, increased investment in technology and infrastructure, increased penalties for blatant indiscretions and joint industry public education campaigns to protect drivers, amongst other measures.  

“We are calling on federal and state governments to engage with industry on improved protections. This isn’t about pointing the finger at drivers or pedestrians but working together to overcome complexities and simply do better. If we don’t, more Australians will be subjected to senseless deaths,” said Pacific National CEO Paul Scurrah.

“The safety message is straight-forward; it can take up to 2km for a fully loaded freight train to stop. It takes a vehicle or a pedestrian a moment of clear thought and mere seconds to stop. Slow down, stop and cross with care.”

In a separate incident, another truck driver was recently charged over a collision with a fully laden freight train in Katherine in June 2023.

According to NT Police, the truck driver failed to observe the pre-warning light, level crossing, and boom gates as he approached the crossing.

The truck driver has now been issued a summons to appear in court on charges that include recklessly endangering life/serious harm, reckless damage to property, driving dangerously, careless driving, driving using a handheld mobile device, and entering a level crossing when warning lights were active.

Police will allege the driver was distracted using a handheld mobile device immediately before the collision, in which four people were injured (including the truck driver).

Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) assistant national secretary Shayne Kummerfeld said the details of the charges were extremely concerning for workers in the rail industry.

“When stop signs, flashing lights and boom gates still don’t stop people from driving through boom gates, it’s clear that the message on level crossing safety just isn’t getting through.

“The collision in Katherine could have been much worse. Luckily, everyone escaped with their lives – that time.  But as we saw at Bindarrah on New Year’s Eve, these collisions can be fatal.”

Kummerfeld said that Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) statistics showed there were, on average, over 500 ‘near misses’ at level crossings every year.

“Rail workers support the call for an urgent national level crossing summit.

“The current approach is not working, so we need to look at ramping up grade separations, stronger penalties for people who encroach on rail corridors, and other warning technologies.”

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