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Bridging the gap

COVER STORY - Crash barriers: Do highways engineers think hard enough about the need to prevent cars from straying onto railway lines? Steve Turner looks at one of the engineering issues raised by last year's Selby train crash.

When Gary Hart's Land Rover and trailer left the M62 and ploughed onto the East Coast Main Line (ECML) on 28 February last year, there were no crash barriers to hamper his progress after he left the road. Earlier this month, he was jailed for five years for causing the crash, although last week it was announced he was appealing against his conviction.

Hart lost control of the vehicle, veered off the motorway and down a grass embankment before stopping on the ECML.

Minutes later, a GNER express train travelling at 200km/h struck the vehicle causing it to derail into the path of a freight train travelling in the opposite direction. Ten people died.

Despite the proximity of the motorway to the railway line, there was no barrier to stop the vehicle reaching it. Unfortunately, Hart had left the road over 40m short of a barrier leading up to an overbridge which carries the M62 over the ECML.

This was installed as specified by Highways Agency standards and ran from the bridge parapet for 33.5m at full height, with a further 9.2m sloping down and entering the ground.

As with many disasters, the Selby crash was the result of a chain of unfortunate coincidences. That such a scenario has been shown to be possible raises questions about whether engineers should, in future, consider installing barriers more widely, at points where the highway network runs close to railway lines.

Vehicles ending up on railway lines are not uncommon. Health & Safety Executive (HSE) figures show that in 2000/01 there were 30 such incidents.

In August, a car left the B5260, missing a tight bend, and ploughed onto the Blackpool to Preston railway line. It was struck by a train, killing the car driver. Again, there was no barrier to stop the vehicle, although the local highway authority had installed a series of non structural reflective posts on the bend. This led a senior inspector at the HSE to call for better guidance for engineers (NCE 23/30 August 2001).

The next month, a car crashed on to lines just north of West Ham railway station in London.

Here, the road was only separated from the line by a chain link fence (NCE 6 September 2001). Legal experts claimed that such accidents could lead to the prosecution of local authorities for failing to prevent them.

As the number of incidents increases, it is becoming more difficult to ignore the risks, if only for the sake of the passengers on trains Last year's accidents have shown that engineers need to take a more critical approach to decisions on whether or not crash barriers are needed next to highways. This is especially so if there is a risk that a vehicle could leave a road and plough onto a railway line, another road, a canal or a river.

There is no nationally consistent policy for deciding when crash barriers are needed. Current Highways Agency guidelines cover crash barriers for bridge approaches, but make no provision based on possible risk or the distance it would take a vehicle to stop.

Principal inspections of over bridges like the one at Selby are undertaken every six years on average. But these focus mainly on the bridge itself to ensure it is structurally sound and do not look at the design, positioning or dimensions of barriers on the approaches.

After the Selby crash, deputy prime minister John Prescott commissioned reports from the HSE and the Highways Agency and these are now with ministers. Their publication has been delayed by Hart's trial and are likely to be delayed further by his decision last week to appeal.

But sources said they were not expecting anything suprising in the groups' findings. The HSE report is expected to say that the risk of another accident as serious as the Selby crash is more likely to result from vandals tampering with track or putting obstacles on it.

It is also expected to reject the building of stronger and longer barriers that would stop vehicles leaving the road because of the significant risk of them bouncing back into oncoming traffic. The results could be as serious as leaving the road.

Since the Selby crash, Railtrack and the local authorities responsible for most of the estimated 100,000 railway overbridges across the country have been assessing the risk of similar tragedies occurring.

In North Yorkshire, there are 33 bridges crossing the ECML alone and 169 crossing railway lines in total. Using a set of criteria agreed with Railtrack, North Yorkshire County Council has identified four sites on the ECML that are most at risk.

It has set aside £100,000 for improvements from this year's budget and, if the county's executive approves plans this week, work can begin on implementing traffic calming measures and improving barriers.

A North Yorkshire County Council spokesman said that originally Railtrack had agreed to match the sum allocated by the local authority, but had since gone in to administration. As a result, funding is in doubt, although Railtrack denies that any financial commitment had been made.

'Railtrack has been very cooperative in the exercise, ' said North Yorkshire County Council client manager Brian Jones, 'but it seems pointless to pursue it for money in its present situation'.

He added that after work had been completed on the first four of its ECML bridges, it would assess all 33. This will take time and depends on funding.

It is a similar story from the local authority in Northumberland where the county council has 14 bridges crossing the ECML, but as yet no improvement works have been carried out since Selby. Northumberland County Council design engineer Bob Copeland said it was looking at undertaking barrier and traffic calming work on two bridges, but finances were 'up in the air'.

He added that £20,000 was set aside in its budget which he hoped would cover the work on the two bridges. Of the rest of the 14 bridges, the scope and amount of work required varies from site to site and the county is waiting for guidance from the HSE and Highways Agency reports.

It is estimated that the cost of the Selby crash will be more than £50M. This includes compensation payments for the dead and injured, the cost of replacing rolling stock, repairs to track and the delays and associated compensation payments made to train operators Using the Selby figure as a benchmark for the cost of future crashes, the wrangling over tens of thousands of pounds for extra roadside protection seems rather trivial. It is also looking likely that in future, if local authorities are found to be to some degree culpable, they could end up paying at least a part of future costs.

So even if it is just down to the financial implications of a future crash, it seems that the directors of transportation around the country should be applying pressure to ensure that money is made available to carry out the necessary risk assessments and resulting remedial work at risk sites.

At the very least, highway authorities need more guidelines to ensure engineers know exactly what they should be designing to prevent further disasters happening.

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