November 05, 2012

Accident raises questions about level crossing safety in Melbourne

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AUSTRALIA's trackSAFE Foundation, which was established to address the emotional, mental and physical trauma caused to Australian rail employees as a result of accidents on the rail network, has called for the removal of Melbourne's level crossings, and more serious penalties for road users who disobey level crossing road rules following a tragic accident in the city on Saturday.

One train passenger was killed and 13 others, including the driver, were injured when a truck appeared to crash through the barriers and collide with a Metro train which was travelling at around 115km/h between Dandenong and Lynbrook on the Cranbourne line.

The truck was obliterated, but its 69-year-old driver survived. Police at the scene said that all of the level crossing's warning systems, which includes full gates, warning lights and sirens, were operating correctly when the crash happened at 11.40am.

It is the first passenger death on Melbourne's Metro passenger network since 1926, yet despite increased investment in level crossing protection, the number of "near misses" is increasing. According to data released last week, near misses across Victoria increased to 170 in 2011-12 compared with 146 the previous year, while incidents involving trains and trackside workers went from 160 to 290 during that time.

A truck driver was killed four years ago following a collision at the same Abbotts Road level crossing and there have been four "near misses" at the crossing since. Victoria's worst rail accident in 50 years occurred at a level crossing in 2007 when a truck ploughed into a V-Line passenger train killing 11 people.

In light of Saturday's tragedy officials have called for an increase in penalties to reflect the potential consequences of level crossing accidents.

Australasian Railway Association CEO and trackSAFE board director, Mr Bryan Nye, says that the $A 704 fine for disobeying a level crossing warning should be greatly increased to provide more of a deterrent for drivers who are tempted to ignore warning signs and signals at level crossings. He added that while the government is beginning to remove Melbourne's 177 suburban level crossings, this must be done so in a progressive programme committed to by all sides of government.

"Traffic is increasing on Melbourne's roads and the rail network so it is vital that the government implements a level crossing removal plan throughout Melbourne," Nye says.

However, total replacement of the level crossings appears to be a way off. Victoria's public transport minister Mr Terry Mulder says that 10 of the metropolitan area's level crossings have been earmarked for an upgrade, although at $A 150-200m ($US 155.4-207.2m) a crossing, he says it is an expensive proposition.

"The ones that we are tackling is somewhere in the order of $US 367m [that] has been allocated for three [crossing upgrades]," Mulder says. "We are having discussions at the moment to see if we can ramp up the programme, but it is a very, very expensive business."

Read more about Australia's approach to level crossing safety in the December 2012 issue of IRJ

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