18 June 2021
It is one of ProRail’s spearheads: removing unprotected level crossings from the railway network. They are dangerous. As soon as it becomes possible to remove a level crossing from the railway network, Molhoek-CCT jumps into action. Project Manager René Siertsema tells us all about it.
It is a regularly recurring news item: a collision between a train and a road user at an unprotected level crossing. Sadly enough a collision like this often results in a fatality. In fact there was another fatality just last weekend while we were working on removing such a level crossing at another location. Since there are many more trains running today and there is also more road traffic, the chance of an accident is rising.
The level crossings concerned are referred to as Passively Protected Level Crossings: PPLCs. There are no safety features at these level crossings: no level crossing barriers and no sound and synchronised light signals that warn of approaching trains. The only warning present is the crossbuck signs installed near the level crossing. A very dangerous situation, in other words, because it means that road users must watch out for themselves and assess whether it is safe to cross the tracks. Furthermore, a train in the distance may seem like it is far away, but at full speed, some 120 kilometres per hour, it is there before you know it.
In the Netherlands there still are 277 of these types of PPLCs and ProRail wants to eliminate 180 of them before the end of 2023. Preferably all of them, of course, but that is not as easy as it may sound. Eliminating the level crossing itself, carrying out the actual work, is not a problem. But the negotiations that precede the work are often anything but easy. For example because the level crossing provides the only access to a home or a piece of land. This is when a home owner or a farmer may be unable to reconcile himself with the removal of the level crossing. ProRail is heavily involved in negotiations with stakeholders and is fortunately often successful.
The entire process, from the time we receive a go from ProRail up to and including our last job outside, takes two up to at most three weeks
Once all parties are in agreement, Strukton can start working on eliminating the level crossing. Here’s what we have agreed with ProRail: Strukton Rail is the main contractor and Molhoek-CCT carries out the work. In other words, when we receive a signal that we can eliminate a level crossing, we start making the necessary preparations. That means consultations with Sweco, the engineering firm working on behalf of ProRail, about the local situation and work-related requirements. In the meantime we start making other preparations: arranging for the necessary out-of-service periods and making arrangements to ensure that the power to the overhead lines is shut down during our work.
As soon as all of the preparations are complete, we start working outside. We remove the level crossing’s road covering and foundation from the tracks, restore the ballast bed, extend the inspection path along the tracks and install fencing. If there is a ditch, we extend it and we remove the culvert (a concrete pipe) below the road. We also remove the crossbuck signs. Finally, we install new traffic signs to draw road users’ attention to the new situation. Once we are done, you can no longer tell that once upon a time there was a level crossing here.
The entire process, from the time we receive a go from ProRail up to and including our last job outside, takes us two up to at most three weeks. This is extremely short and we succeed in this due to the short lines within the organisation. We have everything that’s needed in-house at Molhoek-CCT: tracks, civil engineering and the right equipment. Should there be a missing link then I call my colleagues at Strukton Rail and we solve the problem together. For example, recently there were some questions about cables and pipelines at a level crossing. Strukton Rail colleagues from the Cables and Pipelines department carried out an outside investigation within two days and we were able to immediately get down to work during the following weekend. Of course, sometimes it can be difficult, for example when you are already busy working on another project, but the stakes are high. We consider it important to make time for this.
The collaboration with ProRail also works very well. We work together with Strukton Rail in a kind of building team structure, which also makes for short turnaround times. In the meantime, the counter of (almost) eliminated level crossing stands at nineteen. Nineteen locations where trains and road users have been disentangled. An added benefit is that a straight-through track requires less maintenance than a PPLC. Are there any drawbacks, you ask? Strangely enough, yes, there are. For us as a maintenance organisation this makes it more difficult to enter the tracks for maintenance. That is because you can only do that at level crossings and the number of entry point is dwindling. But you can solve this problem by creating road rail access points. This drawback only affects us and of course is more than offset by the benefits.