Network Rail is responsible for around 6,000 level crossings; some modern automatic barriers and some with a more traditional operation. Whatever the type, the reason they are there originates from the very earliest days of building the railway.
The need for a crossing - where a road or footpath is crossed at the same level by the railway - began when the railway consisted of horses drawing cartloads of heavy minerals on wooden rails to stop them sinking into the mud. Gates were provided on these primitive railways to stop animals going onto the line when being herded over the crossing.
Different requirements for crossings
The advent of the modern railway and steam locomotives in the 1830s made level crossings much more commonplace and different types of crossings were developed which are still with us today. The ‘occupation crossing’ was provided where the railway crossed a private road and the ‘accommodation crossing’ was provided where a new line split a piece of private land in two. At these private crossings, the user was responsible for its safe use - both for their own safety and that of the railway. Where the railway crossed public footpaths they were provided with crossing stiles and public highways with gates. Arrangements for determining when it was safe to cross, the provision of gates and stiles as well as penalties for misuse were determined by each Act of Parliament authorising the railway to be built.
Standardisation for safety
From 1839 the Government introduced safety measures as well as standardisation for public level crossings. Where rail and public road crossed, the railway company had to provide gates that were kept closed across the road and operated by ‘good and proper persons’ to let road users pass. However in certain areas, particularly in the growing towns and cities, this was neither safe nor efficient and in 1842 the Board of Trade was given powers to authorise the gates being closed across the railway in certain areas. Over time - particularly after the introduction of road vehicles - it became usual for the gates to always be closed across the railway giving the road the right of way.
As both rail and road traffic grew, the point at which they intersected became more of a problem for the authorities. Technology enabled level crossing gates to be interlocked with signalling which increased safety and reduced the need for separate crossing keepers. Where the supervision of a crossing was not linked to a signal box, the 1863 Railway Clauses Act required the railway companies to build accommodation for a permanent crossing keeper. However it also gave the Board of Trade powers to order a railway company to take the road either under or over the railway, rather than putting in a level crossing. Doing this voluntarily removed the ongoing requirement to provide accommodation and a salary; the railway companies quickly caught on and after 1863 new railway lines had very few level crossings.
Very little in the world of level crossings then changed for the next 100 years; after World War II the nationalised railway embraced modernisation but little attention was initially paid to level crossings. While the closure of lines reduced the overall numbers of crossings, the increasing use of road transport and the need to reduce the cost of running the railway put the issue of supervised gated level crossings on the Ministry of Transport’s agenda. They looked to the Continent where unsupervised automatic barriers had been used for a number of years. These crossings were linked to the local signal box by telephone and the half barriers - where only the approach side of the road is blocked - were lowered and raised when a passing train operated a treadle or track circuit on the line. Flashing road traffic signals and bells alerted road users to an approaching train. Automatic barriers were first introduced in 1961; this change in crossing equipment made a major change to the operating ethos of the railway as while the duty to control the risk at a level crossing remained with the railway, it now placed responsibility for the safe use of a public crossing on the road user. Then as now, the railway engaged in major publicity and educational campaigns to highlight the safe use of level crossings.
Don't run the risk
Today, our roads and railways are busier than ever before. As a result, level crossings remain the single greatest risk to the safe and reliable operation of the network. So where Network Rail can close a level crossing, we will. As well as investing in high-profile publicity campaigns and education, Network Rail is also making crossing the railway safer by building footbridges, adding new barriers and introducing new technology such as obstacle detection. Every day in Britain level crossings continue to save lives on one of the busiest rail networks in the world.