IT is widely understood that road users who either anticipate a long delay at blocked railway crossings, or who are delayed, may engage in high-risk behaviour such as trying to 'beat the train,' driving around gates, or performing illegal U-turns or back-up movements.
Delayed pedestrians may also engage in similarly risky behaviour such as climbing through stopped or slow-moving trains rather than wait for the track to clear. These actions clearly endanger road users and can lead to incidents that result in serious injuries or fatalities. In addition, if an accident occurs, it has a significant negative effect on railway operations.
While very little information exists on road user behaviour at blocked crossings, there is considerable research available on behaviour at crossings where there are prolonged intervals after the warning is sounded and the train passes, and where aggressive drivers or pedestrians make risky decisions. A number of studies also identify the tendency for various demographic segments to take increased risks and people's perceptions of waiting times and how these might be altered.
Road user behaviour at blocked crossings can vary. For example, motor vehicle drivers are essentially trapped, with no alternative but to wait, or perhaps make a U-turn and detour to another crossing. Pedestrians and non-motorised vehicle users have the same two options, but additionally can decide to take the risk of climbing through, under, or over stopped or slow moving trains. These non-motor vehicle road users are consequently more exposed to risk of injury.
Findings from North American research reveal a number of age and gender differences with regards to risky behaviour at level crossings. Studies of pedestrians show that trespassers are predominately young males, who are more likely than other groups to cross against activated warning signals.
The same research indicated that females are more safety conscious. In addition, findings from studies of driver behaviour at crossings revealed that drivers aged 25-35 commit more driver violations at crossings than any other age group, that male drivers were involved in 77% of fatal highway accidents and 64% of violations at grade crossings, and that they represented the majority of risk-seekers. It has also been suggested that personal values influence young drivers' motivation to comply with traffic laws more than external factors such as punishment.
Similarly pedestrians have been found willing to cross lines if they feel there is enough time, if others are crossing, if they are in a hurry, if they are annoyed at having to wait, or if they cannot see a train coming. School children, older pedestrians and those with disabilities are disproportionately represented in railway crossing fatality databases. However, little is known about the causes of train-pedestrian collisions when compared with train-vehicle collisions, such as whether the collisions result from engaging in deliberate violations or from errors.
From a design point of view, the relative ease with which a pedestrian can enter a crossing, even if gates are provided and have descended, poses a risk, particularly if railways act as physical dividers between important destinations, or if railway commuters take short cuts before boarding a train. Research undertaken at the University of Chicago on pedestrian/cyclist warning devices at crossings demonstrated that active warning signs at level crossings are noticed more frequently than passive signs, independent of gender. Additionally, users under 30 years of age are more likely to pay attention to active signs, whereas older users notice passive signs more frequently.
For road users delayed at crossings, there are two kinds of wait times: the duration of time before a train arrives at a crossing and the duration of time that a train is blocking the crossing. Studies have identified a variety of factors that contribute to what is considered an 'acceptable' wait time. One factor may be geography, as a study of German road users deemed two minutes as acceptable, whereas in Canada signal operation of 35 seconds or more before the arrival of a train is considered excessive.
There is no specific delay time duration that is critical to the level of annoyance of road users, or that could lead to risky behaviour. Studies indicate that a significant number of road users are willing to breach a crossing if no train is present and the signal is activated. A small percentage of those surveyed say that they would go through a crossing even if the train was visible (14%) with 10% indicating that this was, in fact, an exciting experience.
Familiarity with level crossings and warning systems which are perceived to be defective may also incite risky behaviour. Results of experiments found that the poor reliability of a warning system will result in more motorists violating the signal because they foresee little risk to their safety.
Numerous studies have been conducted across North America on compliance rates at level crossings. Results demonstrated that automated photo enforcement did reduce driver violations at crossings by 69% when photo enforcement was active.
University research on driver anger, aggression, mood and risk taking, using questionnaires, surveys and laboratory simulations, found that increased anger and agitation may result in an increased level of impulsive and risky behaviour such as speeding, rapid lane changing and drink-driving. Drivers stuck behind slower traffic displayed increased anger resulting in deteriorating driver behaviour. In this situation, drivers approached hazards with less caution, and attempted more dangerous manoeuvres.
Health effects have also been noted as traffic delays significantly increase blood pressure, heart rate, and may have consequences for the long-term health of the individual. Indeed research on delay perception in public transport has shown that offering accurate wait time information can relieve stress and anxiety associated with delays.
Increasing urbanisation and railfreight traffic inevitably leads to congestion in areas where the two meet. In an ideal world, railway yards and sidings would be located away from communities, and from local institutions and businesses. However, that is impossible to achieve, as yards are almost always surrounded by residential, industrial, commercial or institutional land uses, especially in major metropolitan areas. Since road users have to go to work, to school, or travel for business or pleasure, conflicts are inevitable.
A number of approaches have been tried to mitigate or remove delays. These include investigating the potential for using traffic signal system software platforms for pre-emption of road traffic signals, which demonstrated that pre-emption strategies can effectively reduce average delay, the average number of stops, and average queue length on the arterial roads near a railway crossing. Australian research found that interconnection of crossing signals, upgraded track circuitry and adjusted highway traffic signal phases to clear traffic through the crossing reduced congestion by around 15% at gated crossings.
Pilot projects using connected vehicle and connected infrastructure technology have also shown promise in providing road users with up-to-date delay information, routing options and warnings. Video systems, active signs and other communications technologies to identify blocked crossings and alternative routes have also been tried. Indeed successful tests have been conducted in the United States to link fire departments with rail traffic control centre displays to show crossings that are either blocked or potentially blocked and also display the nearest clear crossings.
There is potential for variable message electronic signage for alternate routes that could be used in small and large communities. From the railway operations perspective, some options to reduce delays include relocating crew change points, installing power switches at turnouts, increasing the design speed of turnouts, adding extra tracks on principal main lines, relocating tracks away from cities, introducing shorter trains, and rescheduling trains.
The introduction of Positive Train Control (PTC) in North America may also offer better ways of managing trains and opens up the possibility of communicating blockage and delay information to road users.
Using reasonable assumptions, including peak-hour road traffic demand of 1500 vehicles per hour and a daily three-hour peak period, a benefit cost analysis of delays was conducted as part of this research and found that daily weekday delay cost is just over $C 28,000 ($US 23,021) per crossing every weekday which translates to roughly $C 6.22m per year. Costs that were not considered in this analysis include fuel consumption, fuel emissions, and the cost of missed appointments.
Deploying a solution that could reduce road user delays by 10-15%, such as improving signal pre-emption and track circuitry could result in cost savings between $C 622,000 and $C 933,000 annually. Assuming the cost of the modifications is $C 5m, the payback period for the investment would be somewhere between five-and-a-half and eight years.
Comparing this with a grade separation, with, say, costs of $C 10m to $C 15m on average, under the same delay conditions as above, all traffic would be free to flow over or under the tracks. As a result, these conditions would provide no delay to road users at all. Therefore the payback for the investment would be even shorter, so long as there was no movement of the congestion problem downstream to another location. Benefits to both railway and road users would accrue, with easier operations on the rail side and reduced delay, improved ease of emergency response, increased traveller productivity, lower pollution and fuel costs, and lower stress levels for road users.
This study reveals that problems associated with delays relating to blocked crossings in Canada is growing and is country-wide. The situation has evolved as a result of increased railway traffic and urban development, which has unfortunately had an adverse effect in terms of delay on road users at many level crossings. It is possible to overcome these problems to a certain extent by targeting road user behaviour, deploying technologies to improve traffic flows and signal coordination, and using techniques to streamline railway operations.