Launching a report on safety at level crossings, Louise Ellman MP, chair of the Transport Committee said today:
"Across Great Britain, Network Rail has reduced level crossing risk by 26% since 2009. However, when suicides and trespass are excluded, level crossings still account for one half of all fatalities on the railway in recent years. Nine people died at level crossings in 2012-13."
"Every one of those deaths was a personal tragedy which could have been averted. Yet looking back it's clear that on too many occasions Network Rail showed a callous disregard for the feelings of the families of people killed or seriously injured in accidents at level crossings.
"Victims were erroneously described as 'trespassers' or accused of 'misuse' of the railway when, in fact, they tried to use level crossings appropriately.
"Network Rail's chief executive must provide a full, public apology to all of the families it has let down - both for the mistakes which contributed to the accidental deaths and for the subsequent treatment of bereaved families.
"Network Rail must also demonstrate that it has transformed the way in which it deals with people whose lives are changed by accidents at level crossings.
"A lack of transparency around safety concerns at the Elsenham crossing was particularly shocking and raises profound questions about Network Rail's internal culture and accountability.
“Network Rail should also consider what level of legal representation is appropriate at inquests, taking care to ensure bereaved families are not left feeling disadvantaged.
“Given that Network Rail has recently been held responsible for the serious accident at Beccles in July 2010 we do not believe executive directors should get any bonuses this year.
"Looking to the future we urge the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), which is responsible for rail safety, to adopt an explicit target of zero fatalities at level crossings from 2020. We recognise this won't be easy because having relied mainly on closures to improve safety at level crossings to date Network Rail may find further improvements progressively more difficult to achieve.
"We also call on the Government to consider whether Network Rail and its employees should be subject to a ‘duty of candour’, analogous to the recommendations of the Francis Inquiry into Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.”
In a wide ranging report the committee concludes:
For families affected by tragedy at level crossings:
Network Rail must improve its communication with the families of people killed or injured at level crossings by appointing a liaison officer to communicate with affected families until all legal proceedings are concluded.
Network Rail should disclose to the bereaved families from the tragedy at Elsenham the findings of all investigations into why 'Part B' of the risk assessment, the 'Hudd Memo' and the Health and Safety Executive report on Network Rail's risk assessment methodology were not initially disclosed.
The Government should extend Legal Help to cover representation of bereaved families at inquests.
For pedestrians and drivers:
The Department for Education should explicitly include rail safety (including level crossings) in the PSHE curriculum.
DfT should overhaul its guidance on signage and road layouts for level crossing (based on the latest research findings from TRL and RSSB) as part of the forthcoming overhaul of the Traffic Signs and General Directions 2002.
The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) should incorporate level crossings into the next version of the hazard perception test and should consider ways of ensuring that the test assesses actions to be taken in response to level crossings.
For government, the industry and regulator:
The rail industry, Government and Office of Rail Regulation should stop using the term "misuse" in relation to accidents at level crossings and instead adopt "deliberate misuse" where the evidence supports this and "accident" where it does not.
The Office of Rail Regulation should consider whether a duty of openness, transparency and candour can be imposed as a licence condition on Network Rail.
In the light of the actions of a whistleblower that led to a successful prosecution of Network Rail and its consequent efforts to improve safety, the Government should consider adding confidential reporting schemes such as CIRAS to the list of prescribed persons and bodies under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.
The law relating to level crossings should be fundamentally overhauled in line with proposals made by the Law Commission. However, further work is essential to ensure that the new rules don't destroy the viability of heritage railways run by voluntary groups.
Network Rail should review how it identifies high risk crossings and sets priorities for improvement. It should publish a list of those it will target for improvement or closure during Control Period 5 [2014-19], together with an indication of the works to be carried out and planned timescales. Where it opts for a footbridge rather than an underpass to replace a level crossing it must explain what assessment was made of the impact on disabled people.
Ring-fenced funding for safety improvements provided in the ORR’s final determination for Control Period 5 is welcome, but the regulator must improve its oversight of Network Rail's efforts to improve safety at level crossings, focusing on the assessment of risk and implementation of improvement programmes. The regulator should also consider whether employing just seven professionally-qualified signalling engineers is sufficient to deliver better national oversight and inspection of existing installations and proposed works.
The public interest tests for level crossing closure procedures are to be welcomed but a public safety test should also be considered for any diversionary routes.
The DfT should consider creating a mediation system run by the Office of Rail Regulation (as an alternative and more cost effective resolution mechanism to Judicial Review) to ensure ordinary people and local authorities can afford to dispute or appeal a closure order.
Planning authorities should be subject to the same duty of co-operation proposed by the Law Commission for railway operators, traffic authorities and highways authorities in respect of level crossings, so that the impact of additional numbers of people using level crossings can be considered.
The Office of Rail Regulation should review level crossing guidance and standards in view of recent human factors research, including the impact of delays, visual perception of older people, different traverse speeds and ambiguity about where to stand safely before crossing.
Analysis of Network Rail and Department for Transport data (see Annex in the full report) shows that if an average walking trip includes a level crossing, the fatality risk to a pedestrian is about double the risk of an average walking trip without a level crossing. Overall, there is an increase of around 8% in the risk of a fatality during an average car journey that includes a level crossing, compared with one that does not.
Nine people died in accidents at level crossings in Great Britain in 2012-13: four pedestrians or cyclists and five occupants of road vehicles. In addition, there were seven major injuries, 53 reported minor injuries and 17 cases of shock or trauma. There were more fatalities in 2012-13 than in the previous year but the long-term trend shows an overall decrease, from 11.9 fatalities per year in 2000-2009 down to 7.0 fatalities per year in 2010-13. Excluding suicides and trespass, level crossings accounted for one half of the fatalities on the railway in the period from 2008-09 to 2012-13.
The Committee estimates that there may be many hundreds of crossings which should be prioritised for improvement or closure.