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Insight

Too often, it takes tragedy for Network Rail to close dangerous railway crossings

BBC Sussex highlighted on Twitter concerns that a level crossing in Plumpton in East Sussex had been locked in the up position, creating 'an accident waiting to happen'.

Sussex Police responded saying that although the picture of a train travelling on the line with no barriers to prevent cars or pedestrians crossing the track appeared dramatic, the railway rule book mean train drivers know to 'proceed with caution' in such events.

Sadly, drivers supposedly being aware of danger doesn't prevent fatal accidents from occurring on level crossings, many of which are already known to be high risk.

I regularly act for the families of victims killed on such crossings and the tragedy is that generally there have been near misses in the same spot, yet the crossings remain operative.

Once such case involved the notoriously dangerous Old Stoke Road footpath crossing in Buckinghamshire, where a young Argentinian student – Mercedes Palomero – was killed in November 2016.

CCTV footage of the accident shows Mercedes turning her head to the left to see the train just seconds before it struck her at 40mph. The driver said at the inquest that he had sounded his horn.

Whistle boards alongside the track are intended to remind train drivers to sound their horns in warning as they approach the foot crossing – described previously by the local press as 'a death trap'. Drivers are also meant to slow down.

Only weeks before Mercedes was killed, Network Rail had put forward plans to close the crossing by 2019 and replace it with a bridge, but when funding was withdrawn, this notoriously dangerous crossing was removed from the regional closure programme, with fatal consequences.

At the inquest into Mercedes' death, the Senior Coroner heard evidence that the crossing was well known to train drivers and they were aware of similar incidents. Between 10th November 2015 and Mercedes' death, there were 11 incidents, nine of which were near misses, and one was a juvenile accident in the same month Mercedes died.

At conclusion, the coroner made it very clear that should Network Rail attempt to reopen the railway crossing at any time, he would ensure a copy of the record of inquest is referred to prior to a decision being made. 

My view is that the crossing will never be reopened and therefore no one will be injured or killed again there. The bad news is that reports of trespass on the line – presumably people taking their lives into their own hands and crossing anyway – continue to come in. Of little comfort to Mercedes' family was the news that finally two other similar crossings have subsequently been closed.

The tragedy is that it takes a shocking death for action to be taken to close something known to be potentially lethal.