Collision spotlights risks being taken at level crossings

A collision between a train and a sewage lorry in Suffolk has left 21 people injured.

An immediate rescue operation went into effect following a crash at a Suffolk level crossing on 17 August, which left a 58-year-old man with life-threatening injuries.

The 1731 National Express East Anglia service, a two-carriage diesel passenger train, was travelling between Sudbury and Marks Tey when it struck a large sewage tanker at an unmanned level crossing near Sudbury. The line is expected to be closed for several days.

Following the collision, the train involved remained upright, but the first carriage derailed.

Diana Lucas, a spokeswoman for the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), said engineers have worked tirelessly with roadway officials to improve safety at level crossings and tested ideas such as new types of reflective materials for trains. However, she added that many such accidents are due to carelessness from motorists and pedestrians.

‘We’re trying to improve level crossings as an interface and improve the safety, but there are only so many things that we can do,’ said Lucas.

According to Network Rail, the crossing at the centre of the accident is user-worked with gates and telephone. The Network Rail signaller did not receive a phone call from the user of the crossing and the lorry driver would have had to either drive through or around to reach the rails.

Lucas said this is not a rare occurrence. ‘Sadly there are a number of incidents that occur where the driver of a vehicle finds himself on a crossing,’ she said. ‘It could be because they are going around barriers to get across the crossing without realising there is a train imminent. They’re more concerned about their journeys than the risks that they’re taking.’

Network Rail released figures in March this year showing that around 95 per cent of incidents at level crossings are down to motorist or pedestrian misuse or error.

According to its findings, there were 14 collisions between vehicles and trains at level crossings in 2009 and 13 deaths. Train drivers reported 145 near misses between motor vehicles and trains, which works out as nearly three a week in 2009.

On the release of figures in March, Network Rail chief executive Iain Coucher said: ‘Motorists are too often playing Russian roulette with a 200-tonne train – and tragically some lose their lives gambling at level crossings by running red lights or dodging around barriers.

‘I’m confident that lives will be saved if motorists learn how to safely use level crossings from the day they pass their test.’

A 38-year-old man from Cambridgeshire was arrested by Suffolk Police yesterday on suspicion of dangerous driving following the collision and the lorry was removed from the line shortly after midnight last night.

The investigation will continue this morning and, following its completion, the site will be handed back to Network Rail. Moving the train will, however, pose a significant engineering challenge.  

British Transport Police deputy chief constable Paul Crowther said a 130-tonne crane is being brought to the site.

As of 18 August, the police reported that the injured man’s condition was serious but stable.