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Level Crossings: How do They Work?

By: Paul Geraghty - Updated: 11 Sep 2019 | comments*Discuss
Level Crossing Level Crossings. Driving

Though they may seem like relics of a bygone age, there are still over 9000 level crossings in use in Britain today. Together, they represent a significant safety hazard. Between 2003 and 2004, 33 people in Britain were killed in accidents at level crossings. Half of those were suicides. The rest were split evenly between motorists and pedestrians. The Health & Safety Executive has recognised the hazardous nature of level crossings by declaring that, other than in exceptional circumstances, no new level crossings will be built in Britain. The problem of intersecting rail and road routes would simply be solved in another way today; but retrofitting level crossings across the length and breadth of Britain would be a vastly expensive undertaking so these quaint features of the British road system will probably be with us for some time to come.

Getting comfortable with the way level crossings operate could save your life some day. The danger is particularly acute when travelling on an unfamiliar route, perhaps making a daytime trip with your family to visit an old castle in the countryside. You come across a level crossing unlike any you've ever seen before. Perhaps there is no barrier. There may be a phone next to the roadside. What do you do?

Part of the problem with level crossings is that there is a bewildering variety of them, and very little standardisation. A vast multiplicity of authorities, executives, local councils, and private businesses share responsibility for operating and maintaining them. There is no unified control. You may have a vision, or even experience, of a modern level crossing system - a technological marvel where an automated barrier system ascends and descends in perfect synchrony with the approaching and departing trains, posing no danger to anyone and wasting little time. But not all level crossings are like that. Did you know that some level crossings are manually operated, and require you to get out of your vehicle, lift up the entry gate, then the exit gate on the other side, drive your vehicle through, then get out and close both gates again before driving off? No? Then read on.

Types of Level Crossing

Here's a breakdown of all the types of level crossing you might encounter, and how you should react to them.
  • The most modern level crossings will have barriers which descend to block the roadway - either fully or on one side of the road only - whenever a train is approaching. They will have a lighting system which will flash red when a train is approaching. An audible alarm system will sound when a train is near. If a second train approaches quickly after the first, the tone of the audible alarm will change.

  • Some crossings are as above but without barriers; some are as above but without a system of lights.

  • Some level crossings have barriers which are manually operated. They may also have a system of lights which will show red when a train is approaching and green otherwise. When it is safe, you must get out of your vehicle, open the barriers on both sides, and drive through. You must then stop, get out, and close both barriers again before driving off.

  • Some level crossings have no barriers, no lights and no audible warnings!At a minimum, there should at least be a "Give Way" sign. At these types of level crossing there may be a phone by the roadside. These connect to the local railway signal office. You should get out of your vehicle, use the phone to talk to the signal workers and ask them if it's safe to cross. When you have crossed, you should stop on the other side and use the phone there to let them know that you have crossed safely. If there is no phone, you must stop at the "Give Way" sign, and look and listen carefully before crossing.

Level Crossing Tips

  • Never park on the approach to a level crossing.
  • Never attempt to overtake on a level crossing.
  • Not all level crossings have full-length barriers. Many have barriers which will only block one side of the road. This is a safety feature designed to avoid trapping a person, animal or vehicle between the two lowered barriers, sealing them within the dangerous track space.
  • Raised barriers at a level crossing don't necessarily mean it's safe to cross. Remember : it could be a manually-operated crossing. An irresponsible driver could have raised the barriers, and then driven through without stopping to lower the barriers again.
As you can see, there is a great variety of level crossing types in use in Britain today. This is potentially confusing for the motorist, and can be a safety hazard. Being aware of the different kinds of level crossing you might encounter can only make your journeys safer and more pleasant.

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Helpful comments on this page, I recommend it
Tobes28 - 11-Sep-19 @ 8:38 PM
There seems to be a great deal of confusion over the legality of driving a 40ftrigid motorhome plus car trailer and the licence required?Also do the passengers have to wear seatbelts?
gentry609 - 19-Oct-13 @ 7:02 PM
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