Victoria's 'wicked' level crossings

People will continue to be killed and seriously injured at level crossings at an unacceptably high rate in Victoria unless major design changes are introduced to make it harder to take risks around trains, a two-year study has found.

Victoria’s rail heavyweights will gather in Melbourne on Monday and Tuesday to tackle the “wicked problem” of collisions at level crossings, which claimed 139 lives in the state between 2002 and June 2012.

The two-day workshop has been sparked by the findings of a large Monash University study into people’s behaviour at level crossings, which found troubling evidence that people frequently and all too easily circumvent crossing protections such as boom barriers and pedestrian gates.

Authorities including VicRoads and Public Transport Victoria will join operators V/Line and Metro to confront the design failures of Victoria’s level crossings identified by Monash University and search for ways to fix them.

“Accidents at level crossings have shown themselves to be wicked problems,” university researcher Gemma Read wrote. “Such problems cannot be solved through the application of existing approaches.”

Ms Read led a study of pedestrian and cyclist behaviour at seven Melbourne level crossings, including some of the worst at Main Road, St Albans, and Old Geelong Road, Hoppers Crossing, which together have been the scene of more than 100 near misses and five collisions in recent years.

Pedestrians were observed unlatching emergency gates to cross ahead of an approaching train, speeding up instead of stopping at the sound of warning bells and ducking under rising boom gates. Cyclists were observed riding through pedestrian gates and ignoring dismount signs.

“The philosophy appears to be that if people would just comply with the rules then there would be no accidents,” Ms Read wrote. “However, the observations show that there is significant variability in human behaviour, regardless of constraints and rules.”

A related study of motorist behaviour at crossings in Melbourne and Bendigo found drivers sometimes miss the cues that they are approaching a level crossing, due to complex environments that include other vehicles, pedestrians and street life such as shopping strips.

The study involved 22 drivers in each city travelling on set routes, with cameras tracking their eye movements and the vehicle’s direction. More than 160 motorists also documented their decision-making at crossings. It was found that quiet rural crossings with no active protection posed dangers both to inexperienced drivers, who tended to expect automatic warnings, and to experienced drivers, who rarely saw a train there.

“It’s important to note there is two broad distinct groups,” study leader Professor Michael Lenne said. “One that is saying, I know there is a train and I’m going to deliberately engage in risky behaviour; then there is the second group of well meaning road users who … fail to perceive a warning they should perceive.”

Victoria’s level crossings are far and away the deadliest in the country. They were the scene of 55 per cent of all level crossing collisions between a person and a train in Australia between 2002 and 2012, Australian Transport Safety Bureau data shows.

Level crossings have long been loathed as sources of danger and traffic congestion, but the huge task of fixing them has become politically charged in the run-up to this year’s election, with Labor promising to remove 50 within eight years if elected, in part through the proceeds of the multibillion-dollar sale of the Port of Melbourne. The Napthine government has committed hundreds of millions to the removal of several of the city’s worst crossings.

The Commonwealth-funded study by Monash University’s Injury Research Institute continues for two more years in partnership with the University of the Sunshine Coast and the University of Southampton.


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