The history of level crossings

moss road and fenwick lane level crossing

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.
Level crossing at Ware station, 1960
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.

Railway Regulation Act 1842

  • Railway companies are required to replace a level crossing with a bridge, if necessary for public safety, following Parliament’s increasing concerns about fatalities.

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.

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.

Railway Regulation Act 1842

  • Railway companies are required to replace a level crossing with a bridge, if necessary for public safety, following Parliament’s increasing concerns about fatalities.

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.

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

History of level crossings

Spotlight on...level crossings