A SENIOR safety official this week defended the use of automatic half barrier (AHB) level crossings despite the fatal collision of an express train with a car at Ufton Nervet on Saturday.
The Railway Safety & Standards Board (RSSB) said this week that AHB crossings were safe, even though it has highlighted them as the biggest risk on the railways.
'We are reviewing AHB crossings but there are no plans to phase them out. I personally don't think they are a high risk, ' said RSSB head of operations and research Michael Woods.
He added that level crossings had become the new focus of attention since trains had been fitted with protection and warning systems to reduce the risk of passing through danger signals.
Seven people died last Saturday evening when a train travelling at up to 160km/h from Paddington to Plymouth hit a stationary car at a level crossing in Ufton Nervet, Berkshire. The motorist and train driver were among the dead.
Woods said many other dangers on the railways had been eliminated in recent years, leaving level crossings the riskiest part of the railways by default.
The RSSB said in its January 2004 report Road Vehicle Level Crossings that train and road vehicle collisions represented the largest category of train accident on the railways.
It says there are more collisions involving road vehicles at AHB crossings than at those with other types of barrier.
The Health & Safety Executive's 2003 annual report also highlights level crossings as a major hazard.
'Level crossings contributed the greatest potential for catastrophic risk on the railways, ' it says.
It adds that 18 people were killed at level crossings in 2003, the highest figure since 1991. Eight of these were in road vehicles.
Bob Crow, general secretary of rail union RMT, this week urged the industry to 'begin a programme of replacing level crossings with road bridges or underpasses on all lines carrying high-speed traffic'.
But Network Rail said such work was 'not necessary or practical, because if crossings are used properly they should be safe'.
The RSSB continually assesses risk at level crossings to decide whether they should be replaced. Network Rail has removed about 1,000 crossings since 1991, reducing the number to around 8,000.
A Network Rail spokeswoman said the crossing at Ufton Nervet was assessed in July and declared 'fit for purpose'.
The RSSB dismissed as impractical suggestions that incorporating closed circuit television (CCTV) and automatic sensors to warn train drivers of obstructions could have prevented Saturday's accident.
Woods argued that installing CCTV was expensive and that 'closing a barrier, checking it's clear and then changing the signals would have to be done so far in advance that motorists would be waiting for over five minutes'.
He said this would frustrate motorists and make them more likely to zigzag over the crossing to avoid waiting.
The British Transport Police and HSE are investigating Saturday's incident. An interim report is due by the end of this week.