On Tuesday 1st May Cllr Anna Bradnam and I took time out of our election campaigns to talk to Network Rail about Fen Road Level Crossing. Along with local business owner Ian Litterick we asked them about barrier downtime, the effects of crime and anti-social behaviour on the crossing, and how they see the crossing's future. They have made some improvements in the area, will be trialling others, and are committed to keeping us informed about changes.
The key in all crossing operations is safety, and the signalling system is designed to enforce that. It's very hard (going on impossible) to set the system to allow something dangerous to happen, so the signallers can't do very much to improve barrier downtime. However, there are some things they can do and we investigated those with Network Rail.
How does it work?
The crossing at Fen Road is operated directly from Cambridge Signalbox, a building just behind the Earl of Derby pub on Hills Road. CCTV cameras monitor the crossing so that when a train is scheduled to pass over the crossing signallers can check the crossing is clear and lower the barriers. In this view from the equipment room we can see the barriers on our level crossing in the top right.
The barriers on these crossings have to be closed before a signal is set to allow a train to go over the level crossing, and can't be raised again until the train has passed. There is an override (in case the train breaks down or something) to allow the signaller to raise the barriers, but because it's not safe to allow traffic to cross the railway while a train is scheduled to go over it, there's a delay of 3 minutes before the override takes effect. This not only gives the signaller a "Did you really want to do this?" prompt but also gives some protection against the expected train appearing again!
To raise the level crossing a signaller holds down a button next to a display on this enormous panel on the signalbox operations floor:
Obviously how quickly the signaller will react to situations at the level crossing will depend on how many other things they have to do, so this can sometimes mean barriers are down sooner than they need to be because a signaller has to concentrate on another part of the area they're responsible for.
More Signalling Staff = More Attention to Level Crossings
Network Rail have decided that the level crossings on the line need more human attention to operate them safely and effectively so they have decided to split the area around Cambridge into two and employ six extra staff to operate it. This will mean that from August, Chesterton level crossing (and some others nearby) will have much more attention from signalling staff.
Level crossings are misused frequently. While we were watching we saw a cyclist attempt to dive under closing barriers on Cherry Hinton High Street, and the signallers report that incidents like this happen every day at Chesterton too. Misuse has increased since the opening of Cambridge North station. People try to beat the barriers on bikes or in cars, and children are often seen climbing over the barriers, apparently sometimes then using the railway bridge over the river to get to Ditton Meadows! When this misuse happens the signaller has to keep the barriers down and advise every train to cross the crossing at walking pace until they're sure the trespassers are safely out of the way. This obviously increases the amount of time the barriers are down and makes trains slower.
Unfortunately the image quality of the CCTV at the level crossing is not good enough to read number plates or identify drivers. Network Rail do have some level crossing CCTV systems which have higher resolution and can read number plates. I encouraged them to upgrade Chesterton crossing to use this equipment.
Network Rail are very keen to engage with the community about the dangers of level crossings, and share my aspirations for alternative routes over/under the railway for cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians.
At the moment trains starting at Cambridge North station travelling towards Cambridge have the signal set to green and the level crossing barriers closed considerably before the train departs. Network Rail have agreed to trial an alternative sequence which should only close the barriers when the train actually leaves Cambridge North.
There is a set of railway points on the railway south of the river whose speed limit is currently 15mph. These are used by trains starting and stopping at Cambridge North platform 3. They have recently been improved to increase this speed limit to 25mph which should also improve barrier times.
New timetables are coming to this area as we get new longer trains and through routes to Brighton and Gatwick. May's timetable should not affect the level crossing timings much, but December's will bring a significant increase in the number of trains running over the level crossing. Network Rail have committed to produce some estimates of how the December timetable changes are likely to affect the amount of time the barriers are down.
Network Rail are also happy for us to contact them with queries about excessive barrier downtime, so if you've been held at a barrier for too long, let us know when and we'll chase it up with them.