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Plea to stay safe – from a Melbourne train driver

This was posted on Facebook by a Melbourne train driver last week. It’s well worth a read. Given he says “please share this” (and other copies doing the rounds are screen dumps, making it difficult to read, especially for those with vision issues), I’m posting the text in full here:

I try to keep my posts upbeat, but right now, I need to vent. As most of you know, I am a train driver. Today, in the space of ten minutes, I had no less than ten people stupidly risk their lives, either trying to catch my train, or save one minute on their journeys.

Running an Upfield train to town, the first station after departing Upfield is Gowrie. The pedestrian crossing is at the approach to the station and is fitted with gates and a very noisy alarm. Four people bypassed the safety gates and ran across in front of my train as I approached the station at 55km/h. The tracks were wet. The train weighs around 250 tonne, not counting passengers. The wheels are made of steel and so is the track. There is no “instant gratification” when you hit the brakes. This time they were lucky.

Next station is Fawkner, right in the middle of the cemetery. Two more did the same dash, they were lucky, also.

Merlynston Station. A woman is held back by the safety gate. She looks at the train. She acts agitated. She waits, but just as I depart, pushes through the bypass gate and only a long loud whistle from me causes her to retreat. She then walks back, pulls out her phone and hides her face as I drive past.

Batman Station. Level crossing, boom gates dropping into position, lights, bells – everything warning “Do Not Cross”. Cyclist decides to beat the booms, rides across on the wrong side of the road, looks at me defiantly and nearly gets knocked off his bike as the boom on the other side reaches it’s lowest point.

Coburg Station (Getting a pattern here?). Level crossing. Two more cyclist. one, a MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra) edges up to the crossing on the wrong side of the road, and looks at me, calculating whether he has time to get across before I depart. He is joined by a lady cyclist in her thirties in a dress. She looks, too. At the last moment, they look right and see another train coming from the other direction and pull their bikes out of its path with very little time to spare.

Needless to say, I wasn’t happy. This happens on a daily basis. Fatalities do occur. Lives are lost and others ruined. How do you educate the public? If you need to catch the 7.30 train, get to the station at 7.25. Don’t assume it will be late. If the gates are closed, the booms down, the bells ringing, the lights flashing, it’s not the starting gun for a race, it means stop and wait – seriously. Wouldn’t you rather be ten minutes late for work instead of early for your funeral?

I was just going to put this behind me, but as I was cooking tea tonight, the news had a story of an 86 year old man, who “misjudged the speed of a train” at Edithvale, pushed his bike through a crossing and is now no longer with us. It was three thirty in the afternoon and the train was full of school kids. I had a fatality about five years ago, at Aspendale, one station closer to Melbourne. You see it happening. You can’t stop your train. You hear the thump. You live with it forever. You are angry that people can be so careless with their lives.

Think. Act.

Please share this if you think even one person might learn from it.

Rant over.

(Found via Reddit. Original Facebook post.)

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

22 replies on “Plea to stay safe – from a Melbourne train driver”

Actually as a bike rider I have to say the train driver is quite wrong when he says ‘Level crossing, boom gates dropping into position, lights, bells – everything warning “Do Not Cross”.’

On the contrary, everything is scaled for car drivers and there’s masses of space, perfectly sized for bike paths, guiding you right around the boomgates to the other side. Engines are growling behind you and there is a very tense fight-or-flight feeling.

Level crossing design is lethal for bike riders because it tells you “the cars have stopped and it’s safe; now’s your time to get away from the monsters”. The only thing that keeps me from doing the run around is that I have to consciously tell myself that what looks safe is much, much more dangerous than waiting around in this growling, roaring space. And you can tell I’m right because of how many of the people getting around the gates were on bikes!

As an interim measure until proper separation of cyclists from cars can be provided at every level crossing, boom gates should be modified with small, intricate designs that remind people on bikes that these gates are meant to keep them safe too. The cost of that would probably just be telling people that it’s okay to paint stencils on the outside of a boomgate as long as they don’t obscure the white and red/black design so much it would make it unrecognisable.

Oh, I forgot to mention one more aspect of the lethality of level crossing design for people on bikes, but because of how critically bad it is, I think it warrants the double post. The level crossing actually points to where you have to go to get around it. The red-and-white patterns are diagonal and the booms themselves are thicker at the left (where the blockage is) and narrower, so your gaze is naturally directed to the “way around”. (Through, as I mentioned, a gap between the stopped car and the boom that is of a bike path scale.)

It really is quite ridiculous how badly designed they are. Ride up to one sometime, and tell me that you don’t agree the person who designed them specifically intended them to induce bike riders to kill themselves.

I spent the best part of my teenage years on my bike training for 24 hour endurances, fitness, and the sheer love of it.

However, I can assure you, not once did an idiot voice in my head tell me I needed to race the traffic, go around boom gates, go through a red light, get away from the cars, etc.

Cyclists are on the same roads, same conditions, and under the same laws as cars. The other side of the road is NOT for driving or riding on – there is no need for the boom gate to go that far. Your logic this is an open space calling out for you to go through must be why products like toasters have warnings on them not to use in the bath…

Felix: “Level crossing are scary and scaled for cars, so they encourage bike riders to do dumb things”

Chris: “I used to be a brave sports cyclist and never felt scared using level crossings while I was training myself to ignore my body’s signals. Your suggestion that we should install more car-scared infrastructure is dumb.”

Felix: “???”

At this point it is evident that we are talking passed each other, not to each other. If you want to consider my original posts again, you’re welcome to. But to clarify: I don’t really care what happens on the other side of road. If you’re not enocuraged to look there, and it’s as clear as day that the crossing is meant to keep all road users safe, not just the elect few, then it doesn’t matter.

That’s crap, Felix. Motorists are just as ‘encouraged’ to look to the pointy end of the boom gate. The thing is, we are all supposed to follow the road rules. The gate itself isn’t even the regulatory device – the flashing lights are what we have to obey. They’re flashing, so we stop. The cars are behind you, and also stopped. When the lights turn off, you can go. If the cars have already started illegally, they’ll have gone around you. A driver can’t hit you at point-blank range from a standstill and claim to have done it accidentally, so unless they’re insane, they’ll leave you alone. If you can’t handle that, don’t ride. I don’t like riding in Melbourne traffic, so I don’t.

As a regular cyclist there is nothing about boom gates that says to me “I’d be safer heading through this intersection of flashing lights, booming bells and signs marked do not cross than staying put”. Your assertion is absurd Felix.

I don’t think Felix’s point is quite as absurd as some are making out. While his suggestion isn’t one I’ve considered, there is often some subtlety in the way that different designs play out psychologically – for instance another documented example is that supposedly if you remove warning signs and line markings, people drive more carefully.

Ultimately it does seem that too many cyclists (and pedestrians) make these sorts of fatal mistakes, and even if you take the ruthless view that they only have themselves to blame, there is still a huge impact on witnesses (including train drivers) as well as affected passengers during line closures afterwards.

Grade separation is the end goal, but this will take decades, so other measures need to be looked at.

See also: this incident at Highett a couple of years ago:

Yeah must sincerely be missing his point as I still don’t get it, might be one of those situations that needs a diagram perhaps.

In any case in SA they’ve been doing a very simple solution – putting traffic lights on top of some crossing signals. If for some reason the flashing lights and boom gates don’t make sense, the traffic light turning red sure does. Seems to work quite well.

@Daniel, thank you. There is extensive research on how the designs of things affect human cognition; these things are considered as the embodied mind and the affordances of a design.

@Chris, I don’t understand why a diagram is going to help you understand that I never made any suggestion that putting a boomgate on the opposite side would help. In fact, your suggestion that we should put up traffic lights requires far more infrastructure than mine! So I don’t see why it’s a “simple solution”.

@Phillip, it’s your argument that’s crap. If it was enough to have a rule and flashing lights, then there would be no boomgates at any level crossing. There are. Obviously the boomgates are worth the lives they save, so car drivers must be regular natural offenders. And the boomgates just replaced manually operated gates, so it was worth employing someone to operate them first train to last!

Likewise people on foot. Near me there is a level crossing on a road which doesn’t carry that must pedestrian traffic. Yet since the road was last resealed, a passive pedestrian crossing (accompanied by an active motor vehicle crossing) has obviously been replaced with one that has gates. Was this crap? Aren’t all active pedestrian crossings next to active motor vehicle crossings crap? These things haven’t come about by accident.

As to the suggestion that I shouldn’t ride around in Melbourne, how else will I get further than I can walk when public transport won’t get me there?

I think we can see here a part of the mentality we face in solving the problem of people flouting rules and getting themselves killed.

Felix what was it you said about twisting what people say?

I didn’t say a diagram about longer booms, I said a diagram about the scenario YOU were describing.

I didn’t suggest traffic lights – I mentioned what SA “IS” actually doing.

Grade separation is not good for cycle safety, as many bridges and underpasses are very narrow, have no shoulder space whatsover, and pedestrians are often banned and there is no provision for them either.

I’d be interested to see some actual statistics about how many people killed by trains ( and trams, and buses ), are suicides, people intentionally “playing chicken”, and the genuinely inattentive.

The psychological effect that different types of warnings have on different people is interesting. As a pedestrian most of the time and occasional cyclist, I have to say that I’ve never been tempted to proceed through a level crossing that has gates down, lights flashing and bells ringing, and I can think of very few things that would make me do so. Certainly not just running late for a train or bus, or wanting to get ahead of the traffic on my bike.

Even in the days before pedestrian crossings had gates on them, I still used to wait.

About boom gates, @Felix wrote:
“Ride up to one sometime, and tell me that you don’t agree the person who designed them specifically intended them to induce bike riders to kill themselves.”

No, it doesn’t have that effect on me at all. The very fact that if I went round the gates, I wouldn’t be crossing the tracks at right angles, but rather on the diagonal, is enough to deter me. A friend was quite badly injured when he got his bike wheel caught in tram tracks, so I’ve been careful to cross tracks at right angles since then.

So far the focus in these comments has been on boom gates and flashing lights. For me, by far the biggest psychological barrier is the bells. They scream “Train is coming! Train is coming!”, even if I can’t see the train yet. I think even if you took away the gates and lights, the bells alone would be enough to deter me, or at least enough to make me look very carefully before proceeding.

I’m with Bonnie. I’ve used PT almost daily since I was 12 years old up until recently. I’ve never felt the need to dart across the tracks when all the warning signals are activated. I have watched people nearly meet their early demise way too often and I’ve heard how shaken up the drivers have been when they have told those idiots off over the PA.

The lights are there for an obvious reason. The bells are there for an obvious reason. The gates are closed for an obvious reason. The booms are down for an obvious reason. Come on, utterly ridiculous psychoanalytics aside, there’s not a lot more that the Powers That Be can do to tell people that crossing the tracks when there is a train coming is a Bad Idea™ apart from getting rid of all level crossings. It is NOT rocket science. I’m 35 years old, I still look left and right when crossing a road, regardless of how quiet the road is. I still look left and right even when the gates are open at a level crossing. And I certainly do not move when all the signals are telling me otherwise. Why? It’s common sense and a high regard for my own personal safety. I wish people would stop trying to justify why someone else should be responsible for their safety.

Firstly, thank you Daniel for posting my rant. When I wrote it, it was in the hope that it may reach a few people and give them an idea of what they are dealing with when they play railway roulette. So far my post has been shared over sixteen hundred times, been posted on Reddit and had spirited discussion there, and obviously sparked conversation here. I am blown away by how this much topic has been taken up and run with.
Secondly, I would like to stress that, in no way, was I targeting cyclists as a group. I was describing ten individual adults, each with or without a bicycle, who deliberately chose to ignore the warning devices provided to keep them safe and cross or contemplate crossing in front of a moving train. None of theses people were wearing headphones, none were on the phone, none of the cyclists were “In the zone” and unaware of their surroundings and relying on subconscious cues to guide them around obstacles. They were all conscious of what they were doing and where the train was at the time.
One more note – when a train driver completes his statement for presentation to the Coroner regarding a fatality at a crossing, we have to state whether the booms, bells, lights, gates and any other warning devices are operating. We have to relive the incident, to record what happened.
Trust me when I say that death caused by the blunt force trauma of a moving train is not pretty. Stay safe, people!

Felix: as an occasional cyclist who has no problems following the road rules and sharing the road with cars, I just have to say that you are the reason motorists/everyone else treat cyclists with such contempt. I would also like to add that I am a train driver and unless you have an IQ of less than your shoe size, there is absolutely no implication of “go around the booms” regardless of what they look like, how they smell or taste, if the booms are down, the lights are flashing and the bells are ringing, no matter what they look like or where you are in the world, it means STOP.

This is such a no brainer, regardless of how you are approaching the crossing- bike, foot or car. A railway crossing should be treated with caution at all times!!! I almost witnessed a mess last week, man thought the train was going to stop at station and it was an express. Train drivers have enough to cope with – grumpy passengers, punctuality, suicides- without adding senseless actions on top of it all. I feel so strongly that I have shared and good on Tim because by speaking out (so well) and having thousands of shares, some education may take place.

If I am approaching a level crossing wearing earphones, I’d actually appreciate the boom gates, lights and bells telling me not to cross. I’m desperately trying to imagine the type of person who finds themself in front of cars stopped for a train, deciding then was as good a time as any to safely proceed with their journey. Would such a cyclist/pedestrian ride/walk across a busy road in such a fashion simply because the cars behind them had stopped obeying the red light? Also keep in mind that if you’re one of the hordes of adults impatient or disorganised enough to be running late, your action in illegally crossing sets a horrific example to any impressionable youngsters behind you. Stop blaming everything else and start taking some responsibility.

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