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Transport & Logistics

Overcoming barriers to a national level crossing strategy in New Zealand – what needs to happen?

3 Nov 2023, by Amy Sarcevic

Last year there were ten fatalities and 305 near misses on level crossings in New Zealand – annual figures that have been relatively stable over the last decade.

While there is general agreement that improving safety at level crossings is important, the task is ostensibly complex, says Gini Welch of Waka Kotahi – a moderator at this year’s New Zealand Rail Conference.

“There are many different types of level crossing and multiple parties with skin in the game, which makes it difficult to coordinate,” she says.

“In total, there are about 3000 level crossings nationally and they range from very well managed with sophisticated engineering controls, to crossings with no controls at all.”

While KiwiRail is responsible for the railway and has an assessment and upgrade programme to improve the safety of level crossings, it is not the only player, and cannot do the task alone, she added.

“There are over sixty local Road Controlling Authorities, including Waka Kotahi, along with private landowners, all of whom have a part to play.

“So, the over-riding question is: How do you share accountability in such a complex ecosystem to reduce the harm?”

Funding battles

A further difficulty in embedding a level crossings strategy is the issue of funding.

“Access to funding for level crossing upgrades isn’t straightforward – upgrades are expensive and any application for public money needs to involve appropriate checks and balances,” Gini said.

“What makes that hard for level crossings is the fact that funding is drawn from the same pot as other public safety improvements and priority is given to issues with the widest spread harm. In New Zealand, that is typically on the highway network.

“That said, level crossings are as much a part of the road system as they are of the rail system, with many parties involved. Historically, the treatment of level crossings has largely been the remit of KiwiRail, but unless we take a whole-of-system view of this issue, we won’t solve it.”

Considering these issues, Gini believes several factors are needed for any rail crossing solution.

#1 – A coordinated approach.

With so many parties holding responsibility, Gini describes level crossing safety as a “pure system problem” and says it can only be tackled with a “system solution”.

“We need an approach where all parties sit down and figure out how to make some progress in this risky area.

“It can’t be about finger pointing, but rather coming together with a shared set of solutions that we’re all prepared to work on together.

“It’s one of those things where if we don’t actively lean in, it will never get solved,” she said.

#2 – Strategy to support funding and treatment

Gini says initiatives with adequate funding are relatively easy to execute and believes funding is one of the primary barriers to progress in level crossing safety.

“Kiwi Rail has an effective assessment programme and can prioritise areas that are highest risk and deliver what’s required. But this costs money.

“When there isn’t funding available, things become difficult and, at times, distressing. When the worst happens, we all look to each other for a solution, but what’s available isn’t enough.”

With this in mind, Gini believes an emphasis on funding from the outset is crucial and says working together on a level crossing strategy could help secure it.

“Level crossings have traditionally been seen as a safety cost, without much focus on the wider community outcomes. This is particularly true in urban environments, where rail lines and crossings separate communities and impede transport flows.

“A well-designed strategy, looking at differing contexts, could support a range of approaches to seek funding. It could also help overcome some of the existing barriers to demonstrating risk.

“At present, much of the focus has been on KiwiRail securing the funding to get started, but I believe that with the support of all parties, a shared strategy could be really effective.”

#3 – A rethink on the relevance of likelihood.

With road safety initiatives historically being prioritised when it comes to funding applications, Gini says a broader focus may be warranted.

“In terms of death and serious injury, the road statistics are significantly worse than rail, and funding decisions almost always fall to the likelihood of the risk occurring.

“To assess funding requirements, the consequence and the probability of the risk are taken into consideration. It’s the latter criterion that trips us up because, while the consequence of a level crossing fatality is significant, the likelihood remains comparably low.”

Gini understands this logic, but questions whether there is a better way, with more focus given to the catastrophic nature of level crossing incidents.

“If the likelihood of a rail collision was the sole factor in the need for safety regulation, none of us might have a job. But the catastrophic nature of that one event, including those at level crossings, is huge – so of course we must be here.

“It’s time we looked beyond the mathematical component of risk assessments and extended the discussions to include how these types of incidents impact victims, their families, the rail teams, and the emergency services in attendance. They’re exposed to utterly tragic scenes that are completely preventable. How do we tell those people that the methodology didn’t support an upgrade?”

Broadening the debate

Gini will moderate a panel at the New Zealand Rail Conference, hosted by Informa Connect, where she will prompt further debate on what is needed to tackle level crossing safety.

Joining her on the panel are:

• Neil Cook, Deputy Director Land of Transport, Waka Kotahi
• Megan Drayton, Foundation Manager, TrackSAFE Foundation NZ
• Anthony McFadden, General Manager New Zealand, John Holland
• David Gordon, Chief Capital Planning and Asset Development Officer, KiwiRail
• Mark Lambert, Executive General Manager Integrated Networks, Auckland Transport

Key points of discussion include:

• How do we address the complex issue of road/rail interfaces as part of our land transport system?
• Who should take the lead on a national strategy for all level crossings?
• How could/should this be funded?
• What’s a realistic time frame for this to be completed?

This year’s conference will be held 29-30 November at the Hilton Auckland.

Learn more and register your place here.


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