Level crossings have been part of the railway landscape since the 19th century.

With about 6,000 still in use, we're targeting drivers using level crossings in our latest safety campaign to raise awareness of the risks and reduce the number of incidents across the country.

In the early days, private companies built and maintained railways based on Acts of Parliament known as special acts. These special acts were passed during the 19th century and would hold companies responsible for managing and resolving matters including:

  • fencing the line
  • building and maintaining bridges
  • and level crossings.
A level crossing at Ware station, 1960

As society and technology have evolved dramatically in the last two centuries, so has the need to develop railway infrastructure.

Take a look back in time at how level crossings have changed with the railway:

The history of level crossings

1830s

  • Level crossings become a common feature of the network following the large-scale building of railways.
  • There is a growing need for standardisation regarding safety; it is widely recognised that steam powered locomotives take much longer to stop than horse drawn carts and carriages.

Regulation

  • The first rules regarding level crossing safety are published.
  • Requirements are applied to turnpike roads in the Highway Act of 1839, where “good and proper persons” are advised to operate gates.
  • The Railway Regulation Act 1842 advises level crossing gates should remain closed across the roads when not needed to for road traffic.
  • All rail companies are required to build and manage fences along their lines. This new law is not for the safety of the public, but to stop trespassing on private land.

1860s

  • Signal boxes become an integral part of the train signalling system.
  • Gates are operated by a wheel in the signal box. At quieter boxes, they are moved into place manually, by the signalmen.
  • Stop signals are installed to protect level crossings and are displayed a few yards on approach.

1890s – 1910s

  • Vehicle ownership grows significantly and changes the rail and road relationship.
  • The impact of motor vehicles using public level crossings is relatively small. Accidents involving fatalities are few, involving occasional collisions with gates. Greater impact is felt at private crossings.

1930s

  • The modernisation of public level crossings in Britain is low priority, particularly the development of automatic barriers, due to a lack of available funds during the economic crisis of the 1930s.

1940s – 1950s

  • Level crossings require heavy maintenance during the immediate post-war years but their operation remains unchanged until the modernisation plan.

The Modernisation Plan of 1955

  • There is an increasing need to modernise the gated level crossings system but the growing prosperity of the 1950s makes finding staff difficult. The current gated system is also problematic, creating inconvenience and delays for road users during their operation.
  • The Modernisation Plan proposes to spend £1.2bn upgrading the trains and system, providing legislative basis for automatic lifting barriers without attendants.

1960s – 1970s

  • The modernisation plan is implemented further; many traditional wooden gates are replaced with lightweight metal barriers, which are first controlled by signal boxes.
  • Automatic half-barriers (AHBs), locally monitored automatic open crossings (AOCLs) and remotely monitored automatic open crossings (AOCRs) are all introduced during these years.
  • Locally monitored automatic open crossings launch in 1963.
  • In the Hixon rail crash of 1968, a low loader transporter is struck by an express train at an automatic half-barrier crossing in Staffordshire, killing 11 people. This incident leads to improvements in signage around automatic level crossings. The crossing at Hixon is eventually replaced in 2002 by a bridge.

1980s

  • A growing trend of ‘zigzagging' around lowered half barriers at level crossings is the primary source of accidents at automatic half-barriers crossings.
  • In the Lockington disaster of 1986, train strikes a van and derails at a remotely monitored automatic open crossings level crossing, killing nine people. The incident raises doubts about the suitability of open level crossings. British Railways is required to convert such crossings to other types of crossings.

1990s

  • Safety gradually improves at level crossings as many of the riskiest crossings undergo upgrades.

2000s and the future

  • 2006 Road Safety Act – Network Rail is involved in persuading Parliament to give power to the Department for Transport to issue highway authorities to make road improvements surrounding level crossings.
  • Network Rail install level crossing red light safety cameras, with 33 currently installed across the network (December 2017)
  • Network Rail and BTP highlight the dangers of ignoring warning signs and lights at level crossings.
  • Network Rail embark on a programme of works to reduce the risk at level crossings through closure, developing and installing technology and raising awareness through targeted safety campaigns.

Sources:

The Law Commission Consultation Paper No 194 and The Scottish Law Commission Discussion Paper No 143: Level Crossings

Hall, S and Van Der Mark, P., 2008. Level Crossings: The history, development and safety record of railway level crossings in Britain and Overseas from 1830 to 2008. Surrey: Ian Allen Publishing

More information:

Drivers level crossing safety campaign

Dr Beeching's axe / The Modernisation Plan of 1955

Spotlight on…level crossings