HIGHWAY ENGINEERS need more design guidance if they are to stop motorists from plunging off roads and onto live railways, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) said this week.
HSE deputy chief inspector of railways Alan Cooksey said that engineers need official guidance to help them decide what sort of roadside protection is required.
Cooksey is chairman of a working group set up by the government after February's Great Heck crash near Selby in Yorkshire (NCE 8 March). It is to assess the risk to rail users posed by road vehicles and is due to report to the Health & Safety Commission in October. Along with a second group led by the Highways Agency, it is expected to report recommendations to the government in the autumn.
Cooksey's call for guidance follows the death of a motorist whose car plunged down a Lancashire railway embankment into the path of an empty passenger train last Wednesday.
In a separate incident early on Saturday a Tesco truck collided with a car and then plunged off the A228 at Halling in Kent, ending up on a railway embankment and causing the line to be closed.
The truck driver survived.
The Lancashire accident was similar to the fatal smash at Great Heck. Ten train passengers died when an East Coast Main Line express derailed after colliding with a car and trailer which had skidded off the M62.
The derailed train was then struck by a freight train.
In the Lancashire incident, the train which hit the car did not derail but was passed by another train immediately after the crash.
At present, decisions on how to prevent vehicles leaving roads and straying onto railway lines are made locally.
There is no nationally consistent policy for this, although the Highways Agency does have a standard for erection of crash barriers on motorway and trunk road overbridge approaches.
The motorist involved in last week's Lancashire incident crashed off the B5260 between Weeton and Great Plumpton at 6.30am on Wednesday.
He failed to turn at a sharp right angle bend leading up to a railway overbridge across the Blackpool to Preston railway line. The car then travelled 5m through heavy vegetation before plunging down the steep embankment on to the track.
Close examination of the crash site showed that there was no hazard sign warning of the bend. Instead, a triangular 'road narrows' sign indicated that the railway bridge was a single track crossing.
Rather than a barrier, a series of plastic non structural reflective hazard posts on the outer edge of the bend were the only protection.
As the railway line was on a long straight the train driver saw the vehicle and managed to apply the brakes, slowing from around 110km/h to about 50km/h at impact. This is thought to have prevented the train from derailing after the impact. The tape from a black box on the train is being studied by investigators.
Cooksey said that a definite policy for the protection of railways near roads was needed. He said highway and railway engineers need guidance, and need to know who is ultimately responsible for deciding what sort of crash protection is needed on roads close to railways.
'At the moment there is an obvious lack of clarity' he said.
He said his working group, which includes representatives from Railtrack and the Highways Agency, is looking at dangers posed to railway lines and the potential dangers in adjacent areas such as car parks, farmers' fields and construction sites.
'There are an awful lot of sites, particularly narrow old bridges, ' he said. The group was looking at a range of possible risk management solutions and assessing their effectiveness.
These include barriers, extra signing, traffic calming and in some cases completely rebuilding a structure.