Train-vehicle collisions in Britain, frequency

A question for the British dopers. British railroads have at-grade crossings with roads. Do you think British railroads have the same number of train-road vehicle collisions as do we in the U.S.? Not in absolute numbers necessarily, but sort of an “X number of collisions per crossing/track mile/train density” situation.

I ask because a long-time British friend of mine and I were discussing a collision that took place near his home (in the U.S.). He left Britain perhaps 35 years ago and his recollection was that very few such collisions took place back then.


BTW: I’ve also long assumed that such collisions were infrequent, but only because I rarely hear about them originating in Britain. On the other hand we seem to have them regularly in the U.S.

I don’t know the answer to your question, but they are called “level crossings” in the U.K., and there’s a bunch of data here:

My impression is that they are much less frequent in the UK.

The US sometimes has barriers that come down over one side of the road. Idiot drivers sometimes try to drive around them, thinking they can beat the train. Sometimes they have no barrier at all AIUI.

The UK level crossings have barriers that come down across the entire road. No driving around that. Accidents are thus less common. You do get a few idiot pedestrians climbing over the barrier, though.

I know of a rural level crossing with barriers that only cover one side of the road. And a couple without automatic barriers at all.

This (PDF) says there were seven (7) collisions between vehicles and and trains on mainline railways in the UK in the most recent one year period for which they collect statistics. Operation Lifesaver says there were 2,105 collisions between trains and vehicles at grade crossings in the USA in 2017.

That doesn’t account for anything else, and the methodology could be different, but I doubt any of that will close the gap on a 300-fold difference.

Not strictly true. Lots of rural crossings (often more rural) have barriers only on one side of the road. There are three that I know of within a mile of my house.

Actually, I think I was underestimating the difference in the number of crossings. “Around 6,000” in the UK. “More than 212,000” in the USA. Of course, not all crossings are equal, but that would bring it to (roughly) one per thousand versus ten per thousand, which could be more plausibly partially explained by differences in reporting.

The USA has way, way more crossings than GB.

And since the USA has 40 times the land area of the UK, but only 4 times the population, there is way more low-population land in the USA. And in this land, it’s quite common to have crossings with no warnings at all, or just flashing lights. Also, railroad trackage in the UK is much busier than much of USA trackage.

So given that the USA has a lot more crossings, and many (most?) of them have minimal warning signals, it would just seem likely for there to be more accidents in the USA.

And people being less accustomed to dealing with trains, in general.

Also, I suspect, higher percentage of population drives, and average miles driven/person is higher.

One possible difference could be that the rural crossings with half or no barriers, which do exist in the UK, seem to be only on the local branch lines, where the trains are stopping regularly, so they’re normally going dead slow through the crossing.

Dunno if everyone else got shown it, but we also had one of those horrible safety videos at school age about 5, where little Timmy lost his legs running out onto a level crossing (nowhere near as cute as this). It made in impression though; I’ve driven round one of the half barrier ones once- it’d been down for ages with no train in sight, and the guy at the head of the queue walked over to the car and said he’d phoned the emergency number on the sign by the crossing, there were no trains coming, the barrier was broken and we could safely go round. Never felt so scared in me life :smiley:

Plus all the automatic-barrier-free ones I’ve come across are on very quiet local roads; the sort of road that only goes to a few farms or the back way into a tiny village, so the only people likely to be on the road are well aware of the crossing and probably have the timetable memorised as well. Are US crossings with no barriers more likely to be where people are travelling long distance or unfamiliar with the road?

Answer to Filbert: no. Unsignaled level crossings are almost always at (A) very rural or lightly travelled roads; or (B) industrial tracks where a single locomotive is slowly moving two or three carriages around. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an unsignaled level crossing on an even moderately traveled road.

My take on the posts thus far is that the barriers keep the collision rate lower. It appears my British friend is correct.

Thanks for the responses.

My impression of US rail crossings is that the trains a generally a lot longer than the UK and those US trains are often moving at pretty low speed. If a driver is caught waiting for a train to pass they end up waiting for quite a while - and if this is true then it comes as no surprise that drivers prefer to risk it rather than sit there.

How many cases are people trying to “beat the train” vs just being totally unaware/not registering the signal?

Also, I know people drink a lot in the UK, but my impression is that drunk driving is less common. Is that true? It’s certainly true in America that rural areas see more drunk driving. I wonder what % of train/car collisions involve alcohol?

I’m a locomotive engineer for a major US railroad. I would say about 90% of the time it’s people trying to beat us over the crossing. The are aware of us but tend to misjudge our speed and distance and think they can make it across when then can’t.

US freight trains are extremely long, 3 miles long is not unusual, and relatively slow. People just don’t want to wait. The UK runs short fast trains, both passenger and freight. So there is really no reason to try to beat the train in the UK since it will clear the crossing quickly anyway.

US railroads also tend to run right through the middle of smaller towns and cities, so more of a chance of an accident. Bigger cities tend to be grade separated.

I had no idea that US trains were that long, how long can it take for on of these to get past then?

It can be long enough here, in some places; multiple local crossings are right next to a station, and while the train is in the station (at least while headed in the direction of the crossing, for some reason I’ve never been there when it’s heading the other way), the barriers are down.

It’s only two or three carriages, but I’ve been waiting at the barriers as long as 8 minutes for the train to slowly chug into the station, boot a bunch of tourists out, then slowly chug off again, actually in the crossing for all of 20 seconds. Not enough for me personally to want to smash through the barriers, but enough to get pretty frustrated.

Quite a long time, depending on location. The locals know this, and get numb to it, but often they forget about multiple tracks. The may see one train going slow on one track, and think its OK to run the crossing. They forgot about the 2nd track where another train is passing at 60 or 70 MPH.

Also, its harder to judge speed for bigger objects. For an example I’ll use airplanes. A 747 coming in for a landing looks much slower than a 737, even though they are traveling at similar speeds…

People see a big locomotive, and we are big. Most locomotives you see weigh more than 400,000 pounds and are more than 16 feet tall. They see that and misjudge our speed. We are the 747 heavy.
The UK is much different, their equipment is much smaller and lighter, they are the 737.

Here in Minnesota, state law prohibits trains from blocking a public highway for more than 10 minutes. (Think how often it must have happened for the State Legislature to get involved.) But that doesn’t apply to the majority of rural roads, where most of the crossings are, and it specifically exempts cities of more than 100,000 population.

Also, I don’t know what enforcement mechanism there is.
Who would you call if this is violated? Your local police or sheriff? It’s likely they are too busy to arrive any time soon. nd what would they do if they did arrive? Hike a couple miles down the track to give the train engineer a ticket? Unlikely to be effective.

There probably isn’t one. Those laws tend to get struck down by federal courts, as railroads are regulated by the federal government.