Interview on ABC Mid-West and Wheatbelt Geraldton

JEREMY JONES: Well, chances are if you’re out in the country you’ve probably been through a passive level crossing – it’s where you stop for a train crossing, but instead of having flashing lights and boom gates, like in the city, there’s just a stop or a give way sign. And we’ve been hearing a lot from different families of victims of rail crossing accidents asking for improved lighting or changes. One of the foremost is Lara Jensen who lives in Mount Magnet, and her brother Christian and two of his friends were killed at an unlit crossing 20 years ago. There’s been funding for better ways to improve level crossings. It’s been announced, and we’re going to have more on that in a moment.

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It's 12 past 7. You’re listening to ABC Mid-West and Wheatbelt.

Well, the Australian government has announced funding with the aim of improving the safety of level crossings in the regions. The Regional Australia Level Crossing Safety Program grants are aimed to foster research and also improve the data and risk assessment for the crossings. The government is already spending 160 million under the program from 2023/2024 to 2026/2027 for up to 80 per cent of the cost of delivering priority level crossing upgrades.

The Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Catherine King, joins me now. Thanks for joining me, Minister.

CATHERINE KING: It’s really lovely to be with you, Jeremy, from fairly – well, it’s warm Canberra but very cloudy Canberra. It’s a bit warmer up your way.

JEREMY JONES: Cloudy, it is today, yeah – 33 and sunny. I think a few of us will be popping to the beach a bit later or off to the pool with these warm temperatures.

CATHERINE KING: I’m jealous.

JEREMY JONES: So, Minister, the grant money will support research and studying driver behaviour at level crossings to better target safety changes. What are the aims of the funding?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I guess the first thing I’d like to say, the whole program has come about at the advocacy of people who’ve lost people, including Lara, who you just mentioned before, and many families who have lost family members at level crossings. These are awful events that have happened in people’s lives, and for them to turn it then into trying to actually improve level crossings across our regions is, you know, such a testament to them.

And, really, what we’re delivering today, there’s already $160 million going out the door for, you know, actual practical improvements we know we can make now. But there’s also a lot we don’t know. So the grants that are being announced today are really for train companies, rail crossing companies and also universities for research grants to actually see what else might we be able to do. We know there’s great research around improved lighting. We know obviously visibility is important, but, of course, if you’re driving, as I do, in a country area really regularly, often it does get really hard to see long distances. They come up on you, and you’re also just tired sometimes and, you know, just that one second of distraction can end in disaster. So, really, it’s about trying to work out what are all of the different factors that are contributing to these terrible accidents and then seeing whether there’s more research and information to actually improve it.

Also the other thing, there’s money going to the national body, which is the Office of The National Rail Safety Regulator to actually risk rate, you know, where are our worst crossings and where might we start to think about putting some money into them.

JEREMY JONES: You mentioned before action that is already being taken to fix things from what we do know. What action is being taken?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, so, at some crossings it can be as simple as there’s just been – you know, no-one’s come through and cut, you know, it might be a bush or a tree that’s actually impeding visibility. So it could be as simple as that, right the way through to, you know, improved lighting on the actual trains themselves. And, again, you’ve got to often change that over time as well because you can become, as you know, immune to seeing particular things – you just see them regularly. Those sorts of things, looking at the sort of angles that roads might come in, so, again, it’s really about visibility, alerting people to, you know, you can have rumble strips before the level crossings, alerting people you’re coming up to one.

And then, of course, also making sure we’ve got good education for our drivers about, you know, thinking about what’s actually happening and good messages out there about just not to risk it. It’s something – I reckon all of us have done it at some point in our lives and, really, it’s just absolutely not worth the risk. But the biggest issue is really people just not seeing the trains, and that’s what we’re trying to rectify.

JEREMY JONES: The money for research here, what is it that needs sort of, I guess – what are you hoping to find out from the research that’s not already known?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, well, I guess, you know, there’s lots of things like we don’t know about - what are the distractions, are there particular times of day in, you know, particular seasons where it’s worse or not worse for visibility. What sort of lighting works, is it a particular - how bright do the lights have to be, where do they have to be on the train? Does a noise alert work as well or do – so there’s things like that that we know a little bit about but not enough about whether they’re actually going to stop these accidents completely.

And, of course, it’s not just the accidents that we know about; there are hundreds of near misses that we never actually hear about that people are aware of right the way across the community.

JEREMY JONES: You’re listening to ABC Mid-West and Wheatbelt. You’re hearing from the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Catherine King, about is a program, $160 million, over 2023/2024 to 2026/2027 involving research for level crossings.

So I was interested, as well, some of this money will also go towards stakeholders, better managing regional level crossing safety into the future. How supportive are stakeholders involved in, I guess, dealing with this?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, look, incredibly supportive. You know, they don’t want this to happen. This is, you know, on their – in their workplaces. Drivers, you know, it’s traumatic for everybody involved in these accidents – drivers and operators. And, really, they’ve also got a responsibility to maintain their tracks. So they’re supportive, and this is really money to say that we’re going to sharpen your focus on this, and particularly looking at where are really the most risky rail crossings that you know about on your network currently and then trying to help them deal with those.

JEREMY JONES: And, finally, what are the tangible actions that you’d like to come out of this?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I guess, a couple of things: one is that we have a better understanding about where the worst ones are. I know lots of people in communities will be able to tell you that, but that’s not recorded anywhere nationally. We don’t know that. So having a better understanding about where they are so that we can target investment into improving those particular crossings. And also just whether there’s anything – you know, anything new we might do that we just don’t know that’s out there now, both based on international research and experience as well as our own experience here. So just getting, you know, our best minds together to really try and work out what do we not know, what might work and let’s trial to see if there’s something else that we just haven’t done yet.

JEREMY JONES: Minister, thank you very much for joining us on the show this morning.

CATHERINE KING: It’s really lovely to be with you.

JEREMY JONES: That was the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Catherine King.