24 Jan 2013

Network Rail admits 21 faults in 2012 at fatal crossing

Network Rail has now admitted there were 21 occasions last year when faults occurred at the Oxford level-crossing where a man was killed in a car earlier this month.

On the afternoon of the death, I reported a source in the railway industry telling me there had been “technical problems for years” at the Sandy Lane crossing in Yarnton, just north of Oxford.  “I just knew this was going to happen,” my source told me.

Network Rail angrily dismissed my story, insisting that the level-crossing was in full working order at the time of the incident.  They denied that there had been regular technical problems.

The Network Rail account was: “Last year there was an issue with the barrier arms staying down, in the safe position, for too long, but it was resolved.  Our inspections since have consistently shown the equipment to be working normally.”

But now, thanks to persistent work by the Oxford Mail, Network Rail admit there were 21 occasions last year when the crossing malfunctioned.  Yet earlier, asked by the Mail about failures just in November, they mentioned faults on two occasions – November 5 and December 7, because of “cabling issues”.

The Mail persisted with their enquiries after being contacted by local residents who reported regular problems at the crossing.  These contacts included a local Cherwell District councillor, Alaric Rose.

“I’m astonished. I think they really do need to look at putting a full barrier in there now,” Cllr. Rose told the Oxford Mail.

“Residents are concerned; people are either diverting away or getting out of their cars to have a look before crossing.”

“On Monday, November 5, at 11pm I was turned away from the crossing after waiting for five minutes with the barriers down returning to Kidlington and was waved away by a Network Rail worker saying the crossing was faulty and I should find another route.”

Another resident who contacted the Oxford Mail, Wayne Tilling, said that he had contacted the signalman “four or five times” after he had found the barriers were stuck.  Mr Tiling said he and other residents had observed people driving round the barriers when they were in the down position for long periods.

And the 21 faults now admitted by Network Rail are merely the occasions when a fault was reported.  There may well be other, unreported, instances.

Network Rail has yet to provide details of the other 19 cases.  However, a spokesman, Sam Kelly, has said: “The barriers at Sandy Lane level crossing failed safe (in the down position) 21 times because of infrastructure issues such as track circuit failures or problems with the signalling equipment which have an impact on the crossing.”

“Level crossings are designed to fail safe if there is a technical fault to protect people using the crossings and trains.”

“To put this into context, Sandy Lane level crossing makes more than 67,700 movements every year.”

“This shows the reliability of the crossing is 99.97 per cent.”

“As stated previously, the crossing was working correctly before the incident earlier this month.”

The British Transport Police have repeated today, Thursday 24 January, that the crossing was working properly at the time of the death.

Indeed, it is probable that the regular faults at the crossing played no role in the fatal collision on Wednesday 2 January.  That is being examined by the inquiry by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch.

However, the local MP, Nicola Blackwood, has suggested that Network Rail should be more “transparent” about the matter.

Network Rail rejects the suggestion that they have been less than frank or transparent over the last three weeks.  Their Head of Press, Kevin Groves, told me today: “Any question we have been asked by any journalist to provide facts and figures, we have provided an answer as soon as we could get it to them.”

Accordingly, I have requested figures for malfunctions at the Sandy Lane crossing for the four previous years – 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Although Network Rail is not covered by the Freedom of Information law, they say they regard themselves as a public service and therefore operate within FOI.  I shall therefore make an FOI request for documents relating to all malfunctions at the Sandy Lane crossing from 2008 to the present day.