Unmanned crossings are major cause of accidents

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The Independent Online

The exact circumstances of the Reading rail crash remained unclear last night, but it is certain that it happened at a set of automatic crossing barriers where a minor rural road close to the A4 crosses the main line

The exact circumstances of the Reading rail crash remained unclear last night, but it is certain that it happened at a set of automatic crossing barriers where a minor rural road close to the A4 crosses the main line

The train, the 5.35pm service from Paddington to Plymouth, appears to have hit a vehicle that had stopped four-square across the track, derailing many of the nine carriages and trapping many of the 300 passengers in the wreckage.

Unmanned level crossings remain a persistent cause of concern for the railways: 17 members of the public were killed on crossings last year, four more than in 2002. Nearly all level-crossing incidents are caused by road users, particularly drivers zig-zagging around the barriers, despite the flashing lights and warning sounds.

Three immigrant farm workers were among those killed last year after their minibus was struck by a train at an unmanned level crossing in Worcestershire. The bus driver had failed to follow the rules for using the crossing by calling the signal box farther up the line to see if a train was coming.

There are three main kinds of level crossing: the full barrier crossing, generally in use on main roads; the automatic half-barrier, used on B roads, and the farm crossings which go over agricultural land. Automatic half-barriers are triggered by an approaching train; timing depends on its speed.

Despite the troubled reputation of the railways, this accident came in a year in which there have been no passenger deaths. Figures published in the summer showed that travelling by train is now nine times safer per mile than travelling by car. The network has experienced the longest period without a crash since privatisation.

The crash happened on the main line from London to the west of England, through Reading - the former Great Western route which saw two of the worst disasters in recent times, at Southall and at Ladbroke Grove in west London.

Seven people were killed and around 150 injured at Southall in 1997 when a Great Western express collided with a freight train. In 1999, 31 were killed at Ladbroke Grove near Paddington station in London when a Great Western express reaching the end of its journey collided with a Thames train heading west.

The train involved in the Reading crash was of the same type - an InterCity 125 high-speed train. Although the design is 30 years old, it was built with safety in mind, with no passenger seats in the front or rear vehicles because of its high speeds. The Mark III carriages, designed not to crumple, have an excellent record at protecting passengers in accidents.

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