by Andy Brown, UK rail practice leader at Marsh

A number of recent incidents involving level crossings - most recently on 15 July - have thrown the issue of railway risk management into sharp relief. The most serious and tragic of these, in which three farm workers died after their minibus was hit on an unmanned, private crossing in Worcestershire, has raised additional questions about how rail operators, Network Rail and local communities should work together to manage the usage and policing of crossings. There may also be a case for greater involvement of insurers, whose experience of these types of risks could bring extra value to the work already being undertaken.

There are nearly 4,000 user worked crossings (UWC) in the UK. These are a legacy of the 19th century, provided to landowners for access to their fields in return for allowing the railway to run through their property. But the gulf between the UK rail network's Victorian origins and the increasingly hi-tech trains that run on it continues to widen.

As train speeds increase - to a large degree in response to passenger demands for shorter journey times - what can infrastructure owners do to manage and mitigate the risks involved, when legitimate access to the rail infrastructure is unregulated and random? Can it be assumed that all users understand and are able to follow the crossing procedures?

On the Worcestershire crossing, train drivers had reported two near misses since 1995. The driver and occupants of the minibus were farm workers from a variety of countries. Although the incident remains under investigation, it appears possible they were not able to read the instructions that appeared in English at the crossing.

Inter-continental travel is becoming faster and cheaper, and as a result multicultural, multilingual societies are now the global norm. What, then, is the responsibility of those running public services to ensure a full level of understanding of safety instructions associated with the use of those services?

Activities around the railways are changing, particularly in rural areas. Not only is contract harvesting becoming widespread, but more people are also visiting the countryside for pleasure, many of them unaware of the potential risks involved in crossing rail tracks. Insurers should be seeking a higher degree of involvement in the risk assessment process to ensure risks are identified and controlled. The results of such assessments need to be shared with local communities.

In its Safety and Environment Plan 2003, Network Rail identifies level crossing safety as a priority. The organisation expects that once the train protection and warning system (TPWS) has been rolled out across the UK rail network, and signals passed at danger (SPAD) incidents reduced as a result, level crossings will represent the number one contributor to train accident risk in the UK.

In response, Network Rail has put in place a level crossing strategy designed to produce a 15% reduction in fatalities and accidents by 2006.

This last issue was highlighted earlier on this year when a survey by Network Rail in Scotland found that at one level crossing in West Lothian, motorists had ignored the red lights and barriers a total of 190 times during 2002. The number of such offences had risen by 50% over 2001, despite the introduction of a traffic camera. Network Rail claimed at the time that the penalties imposed on offenders are not harsh enough, and certainly it seems a `joined up' approach to local traffic law enforcement may be needed to deal with certain problem areas.

Encouragingly, a more community-focused approach to dealing with some of these issues does appear to be under way. The `Keep Crime off the Line' initiative, designed to educate schoolchildren on the true impact of railway vandalism, is to be welcomed. As, too is the Strategic Rail Authority's current nationwide programme of stakeholder visits.

Rail travel, of course, is extremely safe in comparison to travelling by road. But in the aftermath of three major UK train crashes between 1999 and 2002, and continuing difficulties with level crossings, safety remains a sensitive issue. As technologies evolve and social structures shift, the UK may require a whole new approach to dealing with risk on the railways.