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Railroad crossings: Involving locomotive engineers to better understand crash risks

January 20, 2022

By Shaun Bosher

KiwiRail is using a new safety assessment tool in New Zealand to reduce severe crashes

Railroad crossings include risk. And in New Zealand, there’s concern about the growing number of high-severity crashes. As the nation embraces more active transportation options, crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists and trains has grown.

Until 2016, the country’s rail network provider, KiwiRail, relied solely on the Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model (ALCAM) to identify and categorise the riskiest crossings. However, ALCAM was not intended to be used alone. Therefore, it would not always identify the most high-risk crossings. It was a pleasure to help KiwiRail develop a more holistic risk assessment process—the Level Crossing Safety Impact Assessment (LCSIA). It is designed for both road and pedestrian crossings and is in widespread use across the country. I co-wrote an award-winning paper on the assessment at the 2020 Transport Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. 

The new Level Crossing Safety Impact Assessment is designed for both road and pedestrian crossings and is in widespread use across the country.

Improved, not superseded

The new process uses ALCAM, which is recognized globally as one of the better level crossing models. The LCSIA incorporates the ALCAM risk score. But it adds three elements to help create a wider understanding of the safety risk. Those three elements are:

  • 10-year near-miss and crash history
  • Site-specific assessments
  • Safety opinions from locomotive engineers and local authority roading engineers

A key aspect is utilizing a locomotive engineer’s experience and knowledge of the level crossing, providing their insight on how motorists or pedestrians use it daily. This insight is invaluable not only to the scoring process but to the types of issues only they can raise when an LCSIA assessor meets them on site at the level crossing. Their interaction and perspective of the crossing is not something that I can assume to know as a roading/transportation engineer. The locomotive engineer’s vantage point is one I cannot re-create.

A key aspect is utilizing a locomotive engineer’s experience and knowledge of the level crossing, providing their insight on how motorists or pedestrians use it daily.

Assessing future risk

One of the key features of the LCSIA is the judgment of the future risk scenario of a level crossing. For example, a proposed shared path would increase the volume of users at an existing pedestrian crossing. This triggers the need to conduct an LCSIA to quantify what the increased user exposure to the crossing means for the future safety risks to cyclists and pedestrians.

Here’s a basic process for assessing future risk of a new shared path over the level crossing:

  1. Conduct a baseline assessment of crossing using the four key elements—the ALCAM data plus the three elements bulleted above.
  2. A future baseline assessment 10 years after the shared path has opened, forecasting (increased) user volumes and allowing for no changes to the existing crossing layout or infrastructure. This shows how risky the crossing could get with a “do-nothing” approach.
  3. Assessment of the crossing shortly after the opening of the shared path (small increase in users). Here we incorporate the necessary safety treatments to meet a specific safety threshold criterion.
  4. Finally, another assessment 10 years after the shared path opens with the same forecast user volume. However, this time we incorporate the necessary safety treatments to continue to meet the same safety threshold criterion despite the higher user volume. 

The LCSIA ensures the assessor visits the level crossing alongside other stakeholders. The cooperative approach helps improve safety.

This process defines the safety treatments the level crossing upgrade design needs to include to protect the public. It also future proofs the design by assessing 10 years after opening of the new facility, while still identifying any existing safety hazards to address in the short term.

The LCSIA is holistic

The LCSIA ensures the assessor visits the level crossing alongside other stakeholders. There, they discuss the existing infrastructure and get a holistic view of how users will interact with it. ALCAM simply evaluates each infrastructure aspect in isolation and derives a risk score.

For a pedestrian crossing LCSIA, we conduct a video survey to accurately capture the volume and demographic of pedestrians using the crossing—both key factors in the ALCAM risk score calculation. However, the video also provides a treasure trove of information showing exactly how pedestrians use the level crossing. It highlights risks or bad habits not seen on the site visit. The LCSIA shines a holistic light on how pedestrians use the crossing, providing suggestions for the right safety treatments to reduce risk.

As New Zealand’s cycleway network grows, we will see more and more railroad level crossings. The LCSIA’s goal is to improve the safety of these crossings.

LCSIA for upskilling

KiwiRail requires LCSIA recertification for assessors every two years, which is a much higher standard than for road safety auditors. I have been a lead presenter at the two certification courses held to date for KiwiRail. The first course introduced the new process to the industry. And the second course updated existing assessors on any changes to the LCSIA process, as well as continuing to train new assessors.

A key part of the course takes the attendees out to an active level crossing to assess possible safety improvements.  This is a great aspect of the course, particularly for the new assessors who have only read the LCSIA guidelines in principle. They can witness how to run the site visit process and how the mindset of a transportation/roading engineer needs to change to view a wider aspect of the level crossing and increase their rail knowledge. There is always some great feedback on how someone may have never considered to think of “x” or “y” before at level crossings. Attendees come away with a great interactive experience that they can use when they start to conduct their own LCSIA.

As New Zealand’s cycleway network grows, we will see more and more railroad level crossings. It’s important that those who conduct the LCSIA are certified, increasing the likelihood the necessary safety risks are identified and treated to best protect the public. Yes, railroad crossings come with inherent risk—but the right assessment tools can help lower the risk. And that’s what we’re doing.

  • Shaun Bosher

    Shaun is a Senior Transportation Engineer and our Christchurch Design and Safety Team Lead. He works in a mixture of transportation fields but his specialty’s in level crossing safety.

    Contact Shaun
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