Dangerous level crossings to close, says rail regulator

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionBBC's Jeremy Cooke has been looking at a new level crossing which uses radar to improve safety

Around 500 level crossings will be closed and safety improved at hundreds more after rail regulators increased funding to Network Rail.

In its final draft of 2014-2019 rail funding, the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) increased funding for level crossings by £32m to a total of £109m.

Nine people died on level crossings last year, more than double the year before.

Network Rail's overall funding was cut by £1.7bn by the ORR.

The extra funding for level crossings comes a short time after the House of Commons Transport Committee heard about concerns over level crossing safety from the parents of Olivia Bazlinton, 14, who, with her friend Charlotte Thompson, was killed at a crossing at Elsenham in Essex in December 2005.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionTina Hughes, whose daughter died at a level crossing in 2005, on the £100m being invested in level crossing safety

Savings of 20%

Network Rail was fined £1m over the girls' deaths in 2012 after admitting health and safety breaches associated with the level crossing.

Olivia's mother Tina Hughes told BBC Breakfast the changes being made to level crossings would save lives.

She said "many of the crossings in this country have got little protection on them" adding that such crossings represented the most danger to the public.

Network Rail said it had already closed 700 level crossings in the last five years and the extra funding would help it continue its work.

The safety measures being introduced at crossings that are not being closed include gates being installed, footbridges introduced, low-cost barriers and warning lights.

ORR chief executive Richard Price said Network Rail believed the measures would enable it to reduce the risk at level crossings by 25% compared to now.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionNetwork Rail said it had already closed 700 level crossings in the last five years

"Closing 500 level crossings is a pretty big deal in terms of the railway overall," he said.

In the ORR's final determination on funding for railways in England, Scotland and Wales, Network Rail will receive more than £21bn over the next five years to fund the day-to-day running of the network.

The savings require Network Rail to bring down the cost of running the network by around 20%.

Many of the targets were included in the ORR's draft determination in June.

Targets and spending announced on Thursday included:

  • A 90% punctuality target for all regional, London, south-east England and Scottish services.
  • On long-distance routes, East Coast, Virgin Trains and First Great Western must run 88% of trains on time.
  • A halving of trains more than 30 minutes late or cancelled on the East Coast and West Coast main lines.
  • £250m to help improve the safety of track workers.
  • £571m to upgrade structures such as bridges and tunnels.
  • £12bn worth of improvements to Britain's rail network to ease congestion and improve performance on the railways.
  • Rail users and train operators given a bigger role to shape the specification and delivery of approved enhancements.

Network Rail has until 7 February 2014 to respond in detail and accept or reject the ORR's determination.

'Critical challenge'

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionAnna Walker, of the Office of Rail Regulation: There is a "serious shortage of capacity in some areas"

The company's chief executive, Sir David Higgins, said the next five years would be a "critical challenge" for the railway.

"A challenge to continue to respond to rising passenger demand and our need to grow and expand the network while at the same time juggling the ever harder challenges of improving performance, reducing cost and delivering huge investment projects from which substantial social and economic benefits flow."

He added that Network Rail would use the next few months to seek clarification and work through the detail of the determination.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "Passengers want safe, reliable train services and more and longer trains to cope with rising passenger numbers.

"This large investment is welcome, and these industry targets should help underpin NR's plans. However, passengers will want to see these revised punctuality targets being met.

He said the organisation was "pleased to see a renewed commitment to transparency".

More on this story