Since the full opening of Regional Rail Link on June 21, level crossing delays at Mount Derrimut Road in Deer Park have skyrocketed, with some newspaper reports claiming that the boom gates have been down for period of up to 40 minutes! So what is actually going at the crossing?
The first reports on level crossing delays came only a few weeks after Regional Rail Link opened.
Police ‘absolutely sick’ of risky drivers at level crossings
July 9, 2015
Victorian transit police have issued a plea to motorists to improve their behaviour around rail crossings after a spate of near misses in the past two weeks.
Police have reminded motorists that a new timetable – delivered following the opening of the Regional Rail Link on June 21 – means more V/Line trains are going through level crossings at Deer Park and Sunshine West.
Some motorists have been “dicing with death” by ignoring warning signals and even driving around boom gates, the state’s police force said on Thursday.
Victorian Police Transit Safety Division Inspector Karl Curran said he wanted to get a clear message to drivers who ignore level crossing warning signals.
“If driver behaviour continues this way there is going to be a fatality,” Curran said. “We are absolutely sick of drivers taking potentially deadly risks around railway tracks and level crossings as trains approach at up to 160 km/h.”
By August a local resident flagged the issue with Member for Kororoit Marlene Kariouz, who then raised it with the Minister for Public Transport.
Brimbank & North West Star Weekly
RRL opening causes Deer Park crossing gridlock
August 17, 2015
Ballarat train timetables will be reviewed after a Brimbank politician raised commuter frustration in parliament last week.
Member for Kororoit Marlene Kariouz had called on the Minister for Public Transport to sort out severe traffic congestion at a Deer Park railway crossing on August 6.
Traffic at Station Road has increased by 34 per cent over the past decade, according to Brimbank council’s transport priorities report.
“Since the completion and opening of the Regional Rail Link, the boom gates at the Deer Park railway crossing are down for lengthy periods, causing a backlog of traffic and driver frustration, and other safety issues,” Ms Kariouz said.
“I have had a number of emails from constituents regarding the long waits they are experiencing since the opening of the regional rail link.
“I note the minister has asked Public Transport Victoria and V/Line to review the timetable for the Ballarat line after the opening of the Regional Rail Link.
“As part of this I ask the minister to investigate what options are available to address traffic congestion at the Deer Park railway crossing in Station Road, Deer Park, caused by the railway gates being down for long periods of time.”
Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan said the scheduling of services through Deer Park is being considered as part of a review by Public Transport Victoria and V/Line of the Ballarat line timetable.
But no reason has been given as to why the delays are occurring, except that a timetable change is coming for the Ballarat line, and nothing is actually broken.
Brimbank & North West Star Weekly
Deer Park crossing delays prompt deadly risks
November 24, 2015
Drivers and pedestrians are illegally crossing railway tracks near Deer Park train station because boom gates are down for up to 40 minutes.
In a letter to Western Metropolitan MP Bernie Finn, Deer Park resident Daniel Attard said there was an “escalating safety issue” at the Mount Derrimut Road crossing.
Sunshine police’s Acting Inspector Brenda Bagally confirmed safety at the level crossing was an “ongoing issue”.
“The gates are down not just from getting stuck but from more trains coming through,” she said.
Police transit safety division inspector Karl Curran told Star Weekly in July that the Regional Rail Link and new V/Line timetables increased the number of trains going through level crossings at Deer Park and Sunshine West.
New timetables for the Ballarat line are due in late January but are not a direct response to Deer Park safety concerns, the state government has said.
Mr Attard stated the delays were leading to dangerous behaviour from train commuters, pedestrians and cyclists, who are crossing the tracks.
“I’ve witnessed on countless occasions pedestrians, rail commuters and cyclists climbing over or walking around the safety barriers while the crossing alarm is sounding and the boom gates are down,” he wrote.
“Several times I have witnessed motorcyclists riding around the boom gates and passengers in vehicles attempting to raise the smaller boom gate by hand, allowing vehicles through.”
He wrote, “there had been and still are frequent and significant malfunctions” with the boom gates.
“[Recently] the boom gates were down for a continual period of approximately 25 minutes.
Often, during the morning and afternoon peak periods, the boom gates are down for significant lengths of time, in regular cases between 25 and 40 minutes.
“This includes periods of up to 10 or 12 minutes when no train is either arriving or departing the platforms at Deer Park station.”
A spokesman for the minister said the government would ensure V/Line inspected and monitored the level crossing.
The real answer
The reason for the worsening level crossing delays at Deer Park is simple – since the opening of Regional Rail Link, every train to and from Geelong now uses the tracks through the station, resulting in the boom gates being down for longer than when just Ballarat trains used the line.
However, the gates staying down despite trains not passing through the crossing isn’t a physical fault – it’s fault with V/Line’s operational procedures, tied up with the way that level crossings operate.
How do level crossings even work?
The point of a level crossing is simple – prevent motorists and pedestrians from being on the tracks at the same time as a train. They achieve this by detecting the presence of trains before they reach the crossing, so that the mandatory warning time of 25 seconds is given to road users.
For a simple level crossing detecting a train isn’t too difficult – work out how long the fastest train takes to reach the crossing, install a sensor at that location, trigger the warning right away, and then reopen the crossing to road traffic as soon as the train is clear. However complexity soon arises once you head out into the real world.
The first hurdle is the ‘another train coming’ scenario on double track railways – where a train in one direction clears a level crossing, only for another to approach from the other direction soon after. Since you can’t open and close a level crossing instantly, the gates sometimes need to be kept down even when the tracks looks clear – the ‘Victorian Rail Industry Operators Group Standards’ describes the rationale:
The provision of holding for boom barriers ensures that if a motorist has just begun to move after the first train has passed, he will not be surprised by the level crossing protection restarting, causing him to react inappropriately and possibly stopping on the crossing.
Further complexity occurs when you start to mix trains that travel at different speeds – obviously a train travelling at 160 km/h towards a level crossing will get there much faster than a train doing half that speed, which also means the warning time calculated for a ‘fast’ train will result in the boom gates staying down longer when a ‘slow’ train approaches.
Thankfully technology has a solution that allows for varying warning times – instead of just detecting the presence of trains at a given trigger location, a ‘level crossing predictor’ uses a motion detection system to determine how fast a train is travelling towards it, which allows a consistent warning time to be given to road users, no matter the speed of the train.
However at Mount Derrimut Road, the main cause of delays is a third factor – the mix of express and stopping trains using Regional Rail Link. Express trains go flying through Deer Park on their way to the city, but stopping trains slow *down* on their approach, stop at the platform for passengers to board, then eventually accelerate back to normal speed. So how is the level crossing supposed to give a constant warning time, when the two times are so different?
Again, this is already a solved problem, and it doesn’t even need any fancy technology – for decades level crossings in suburban Melbourne have been using ‘express/stopping selection’ to minimise the delays to motorists when trains stop at stations.
The ‘Victorian Rail Industry Operators Group Standards’ has this to say about the practice:
Express/stopping selection is provided when a platform is on the approach side of a level crossing fitted with boom barrier protection and is in close proximity to the crossing.
Stopping trains utilising the express train approach would cause extended closure times of the crossing. A stopping approach is provided in this circumstance to reduce the closure time for stopping trains.
Correct operation of express/stopping approaches requires selection and identification of each train as either an express or stopping train at the station under consideration.
There are currently two methods of achieving this:
- Manual selection by a signaller at that location or at a preceding location. The signaller is required to select the train as either a stopping train or an express train via push-buttons before the departure signal will clear.
- Automatic selection via a timing track at a preceding station. The train will be identified as an express or stopping train based on its operation at the selection station.
The signals and level crossing approaches are then set based on the identification (or selection) of the train.
If the train is selected as an express, full line-speed control and holding approaches are selected and the signals are cleared.
If the train is selected as a stopper, stopping control and holding approaches are selected and the signal protecting the level crossing is held at stop. The signals leading to the signal at stop display the appropriate aspect sequence.
In many cases the selection, whether manual or automatic, applies to a number of stations and crossings on the line ahead.
In this case the selection information proceeds to the rear of the previous train and follows that train to establish the required conditions for the following train. The circuitry used to achieve this is referred to as the progression system.
For those who aren’t signalling nerds, the above means “express trains get a clear run through the level crossing, while stopping trains have to stop in the platform, wait for the level crossing to activate, and then proceed”.
And back to Deer Park
So what is going on at Mount Derrimut Road? The top speed of V/Line trains is between 115 km/h and 160 km/h so that doesn’t really explain the massive delays – and the ‘another train coming’ scenario isn’t unique to Deer Park either.
However when I paid a visit to Deer Park for myself, express/stopping selection was the obvious issue – the level crossing activating early, no matter if the train is passing through at 160 km/h, or coming to a halt to pick up waiting passengers.
I’ve since been told that all level crossings along the Regional Rail Link route already have express/stopping selection equipment fitted, but V/Line flags every train as an ‘express’ service in the signalling system – an operational convenience that makes life hell for anyone trying to cross the tracks.
While motorists in Deer Park won’t be happy that they have been unnecessarily delayed since June 2015, at least it means the fix for the problem is simple – no new timetables are needed, and no repairs to level crossings are required – V/Line just needs to use their signalling system as it was designed, and the infrastructure they already have in place will minimise delays.
The opening of Regional Rail Link has seen a previous theme at V/Line become even more apparent – their difficulty to adjusting to the fact they are now responsible for operating a commuter rail service to Melbourne’s ever growing regional satellites.
When you only run three trains a day through a town, level crossing delays don’t really matter. But when you are running four trains a hour to Geelong and another two to Bacchus Marsh, Deer Park is no longer just a ‘country’ station, and small delays add up.
And another problem
Regional Rail Link trains also suffer from delays at the flat junction west of Deer Park – I’d write about it, but Daniel Bowen covered the topic a month ago.