Add two more to the 80+ rail crossing fatalities

We have 2 deaths at a rail crossing on State Highway 1 at Ohingaiti - yet another case of tragic repetitive failure.

To quote Lex Henry from Ontrack, “But I don’t think every time there’s a fatality at a particular crossing, that on a cost-benefit analysis, we need to go off and install [barrier] arms.”

So - let’s look at the cost-benefit analysis. LTSA’s estimate of “statistical value of life” is $2.5m (proposed $4m (PDF 32kb)) and barrier arms cost $150,000 to install. At that rate a barrier arm has to save one life over a period of approximately ten years to be cost-justified.

The Ohingaiti crossing isn’t just some low traffic frequency crossing - it’s on State Highway 1. The driver was a recent immigrant to New Zealand - possibly unfamiliar with our conditions - and we have thousands of tourists self-driving in cars and campervans every year. Reportedly, there has been no “rail collisions” at that crossing for at least ten years - however, it would be interesting to find out its ALCAM (see below) risk score.

Lex Henry is reported as saying that it is not practical to install $150,000 barriers at the 1400 rail crossings in New Zealand - and also states, “At the end of the day there’s thousands of crossings at many places in New Zealand. From a practical point, unless they are high-risk sites… what is the real benefit-cost analysis?”.

Yes, some of these crossings will only be used by farmers and local people accessing their own properties and are comparatively low risk. A rail crossing combined with a tricky and somewhat restricted vision S-bend on State Highway 1 is a completely different matter. Yes, let’s deal with the high-risk sites.

The bigger picture - over 80 deaths in 10 years. In 2005, David George, CE of Ontrack, said “We know from the Australian experience - where they have a programme of routinely replacing these active flashing light signals with barrier signals - the reduction in fatalities and accidents has been 95%.” It looks like barrier signals do work pretty effectively and the Aussies have been addressing the issue. It seems that “driver error” is a high factor in crossing accidents - so, if drivers are predisposed to error then surely it is incumbent to take steps to reduce or prevent error (which may have been the cause of these latest fatalities).

80 deaths at $2.5m a death is $200m loss over a ten year period. At $150,000 per crossing - that’s equivalent to the cost of about 1300 crossings. Perhaps we should revisit the “real benefit-cost analysis”.

In the meantime, it does appear that Transit New Zealand has been examining this problem and “are targetting 2006/07 as the year to apply ALCAM.” ALCAM is the “Australian Level Crossing Assessment Model” and is also mentioned on the Road Controlling Authorities Forum web site.

What has actually been done with ALCAM here is somewhat harder to find.

Leave a Reply