THEY are one of motorists’ most feared obstacles and pose the biggest risk of a rail disaster – but now the days of open level crossings are numbered.
Network Rail is poised to phase out the last remaining crossings in Scotland.
The crossings do not have barriers and rely on flashing red lights and Klaxons to warn drivers of approaching trains.
The firm has installed barriers at 17 of the 23 open crossings north of the Border, with a further four to follow this year. It has now set its sights on shutting the final two – urging Highland Council to grant approval.
The closure programme was accelerated by the death of all three people in a car that was hit by a train in 2009 at an open crossing at Halkirk in Caithness.
An investigation by the UK Department for Transport’s rail accident investigation branch (Raib) concluded it was probably caused by the 81-year-old driver’s poor eyesight. Barriers were installed at the crossing last month.
Raib said the investigation confirmed open crossings “are the highest risk form of level crossing for vehicle drivers on public roads, and some of them have a significant history of incidents and accidents”.
It also found the lack of barriers was the most significant factor in motorists driving through red lights, either deliberately or in error.
The Scottish Law Commission has also described level crossings as presenting the “largest single risk of catastrophic train accident in Great Britain”.
A survey of 2,500 people by Highlands SNP MSP and level-crossing safety campaigner Dave Thompson, following the Halkirk incident, found nearly one in three said they or someone they knew had had a “near miss” at an open crossing in the last ten years.
In addition, three in four felt unsafe at open crossings, and almost nine in ten said barriers should be installed.
Network Rail said one of the last open crossings to have barriers added this year would be at Garve, where the A835 Inverness-Ullapool road crosses the Inverness-Kyle of Lochalsh rail line.
The two remaining include one at Delny, near Invergordon in Easter Ross, where two teenage car passengers were killed when the car crashed into a train in 2007. The 17-year-old driver, who had just passed his driving test, was jailed for five years for causing their deaths.
The other crossing is in Ding-wall, where Network Rail said there was insufficient land to install barriers.
The firm is discussing closing the crossings with Highland Council, but locals oppose the Delny closure because it would involve a lengthy detour.
The council has commissioned consultants to assess the impact of the closure.
A spokesman said: “We are working with Network Rail to identify the impacts on communities of closure on the local road network at these locations.
“Once this information is available there will be consultation with local councillors and the community.”
Mr Thompson said: “There is no doubt safety will be greatly enhanced by barriers and I’m convinced the number of accidents will reduce.”
A Network Rail spokesman said: “Misuse of level crossings is the single biggest risk to rail safety and we would not contemplate allowing level crossings today if we were building the railway again.”