National Level Crossing Safety Strategy launches to mixed reviews

According to a lobby group made up of 12 families who have lost loved ones in train-related incidents, the newly released National Level Crossing Safety Strategy 2023-2032 (NLCSS) is flawed.

The Australian Government released the NLCSS on Friday February 2.

In launching the strategy, the Australian government said it was part of an ongoing commitment to reducing fatalities and injuries at the more than 20,000 level crossings intersecting with roads and pathways across the country.

“Every year, Australians are being killed or injured on our level crossing network, resulting in untold mental, physical and emotional trauma for all involved, as well as millions of dollars in damages,” said Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government Catherine King.

“The community and stakeholders have long advocated for improved investment, better safety measures, education, enforcement, and harnessing technology – and this strategy sets out a clear path to achieving those aims.”

The aim of the strategy includes:

  • Improving public education and enforcement
  • Leveraging emerging technology and innovation
  • Identifying early, low-cost and effective safety improvements
  • Developing improved data and knowledge
  • Increasing coordination and knowledge sharing by those responsible for safety.

The strategy was developed by the National Level Crossing Safety Committee, comprised of representatives from federal, state and local governments, rail industry associations and regulators; including the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR).

Lara Jensen, spokeswoman for the Improve Train Lighting and Level Crossing Safety Group, said, “The strategy states that ‘heavy vehicles are over-represented in level crossing incidents, especially at passive level crossings but besides the NHVR there was no peak trucking industry body representation on the committee which should have been there from scratch – a glaring oversight at best.”

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

She has since spent over 20 years advocating for better lighting on trains to help improve level crossing safety.

“The last two decades have been marked by a complete failure by government and the rail industry to improve level crossing safety,” she said.

“Rail operators have done nothing in the face of clear evidence that safety can be improved. The national rail regulator ONRSR has done nothing to ensure they act on the evidence, and government ministers have not been actively engaged or taken their responsibilities seriously.

“The National Level Crossing Safety Strategy (NLCSS) process for our group of families and supporters lobbying for rail safety improvements has been tortuous, extremely frustrating and at times immensely disappointing.”

The issue of poorly lit trains remains high on the agenda for Jensen’s lobby group. The newly released strategy says it will draw on the ONRSR commissioned reports into train conspicuity and continue to promote ongoing research in this field.

Though according to Jensen, “The mention of yet more research raises a serious red flag for our families and supporting organisations. Continuing to promote ongoing research is not the same as implementing the findings of research already completed,” she said.

“We don’t need any more research, testing or trials specifically when it comes to the effectiveness of beacon lighting on locomotives that has already been proven by the rail industry’s own research.

“By this I am referring to the release of two major national train lighting reports commissioned by the national rail regulator ONRSR in the last three years as a consequence of our lobbying. These reports by the Monash Institute of Railway Technology (MIRT) and the Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation (ACRI) made it clear that train lighting can be improved.”

She continued, “The findings of the MIRT report again reinforce the importance of auxiliary lighting on locomotives for improved visibility in line with coronial recommendations made by WA State Coroner Alastair Hope in 2001 after my brother and his two friends were killed near Jennacubbine.”

Though Jensen said she remained hopeful of the strategy resulting in meaningful change.

Among the key actions set out in the NLCSS are:

  • Develop a national report on train illumination trials and innovations including changes to relevant standards.
  • Work with Industry to implement train visibility improvements based on current research and trials.
  • Investigate technological opportunities to alert road users to level crossings and intelligent transport systems that improve communication between road and rail vehicles.
  • Work with jurisdictions and relevant road and rail managers to identify disused level crossings and assist the development of a model for the decommissioning of disused level crossings.
  • Investigate opportunities to access and incorporate investigation findings and recommendations such as from Coroners or transport investigation authorities into level crossing accidents.

Following the release of the NLCSS, a rail level crossing safety roundtable to identify any further action that could be taken by governments, regulators, and industry, will be held in Brisbane on March 6.

Rail workers including train drivers will be represented through their unions.

The Australian Government is also providing $180 million for the Regional Australia Level Crossing Safety Program, including $160 million over four years from 2023-24 to 2026-27 to support lower-cost, high-priority railway crossing upgrades.

These upgrades include installing flashing lights, audible warning devices, boom barriers, enhanced signage, and pedestrian mazes upgrade to increase the visibility of crossings on both sides of the roadway in response to approaching trains.

The Australian government says level crossings remain the highest public safety risk on the rail network. Among the most recent incidents was in December 2023, where two rail workers lost their lives following a fatal level crossing accident.

“Any life lost on the rail network is a tragedy and our thoughts go out to the families of the two train drivers killed near Bindarrah on the NSW border,” said Jensen.

“Our families have seen first-hand just how easy it is for the rail industry to react and arrange a national safety summit with full government support in a matter of weeks.

“However the sad truth of the matter is that no rail operators whatsoever came forward when our three family members were killed and they resisted our pleas to make any improvements whatsoever to train lighting following unequivocal recommendations. Here we are 23 years later still fighting.”

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