A passenger train came within half a second of smashing into two cars at a level crossing in Norfolk after barriers were raised by mistake, an investigation has found.
Accident investigators said a combination of poor engineering and leaves on the line triggered the automatic signal that told waiting cars to cross the track in the path of the oncoming Greater Anglia passenger train.
The quick thinking of the trainee driver’s instructor, who noticed the barriers rise and told the driver to apply the emergency brake, averted a crash, with the train slowing to about 40mph before it reached the crossing.
One car passed in each direction just in front of the moving train, in darkness on the evening of 24 November 2019. The train missed the rear of one vehicle by less than half a second, and only came to a stop 230 metres further down the track.
The Rail Accident Investigation Branch said the near-miss, at Norwich Road level crossing, near New Rackheath, Norfolk, was likely caused by leaves on the line coating the railhead – the top of the railway track’s steel rails that come into contact with wheels.
Investigators said the contamination could have interrupted the electrical signal that identified the train’s position, prompting the level crossing barriers to operate. A treatment train that cleans the rails did not run on weekends on the line, leaving the buildup for more than two days in a period of heavy leaf fall.
Simon French, the chief inspector of rail accidents, said: “All too often the interaction between road users and the railway at level crossings leads to incidents and accidents. In many cases the actions of the road user are the immediate cause, but in this alarming event, deficiencies in the way the railway equipment operated placed two car drivers, and the people on a passenger train, in deadly danger through no fault of their own.
“Our investigation found that the installation at Norwich Road level crossing was a poor piece of engineering which had been in use for several years, and only luck had previously prevented an accident.”
Level crossings have long been considered one of the most dangerous parts of the rail network. Network Rail has closed hundreds in the last decade and is planning to shut down another 105 across the Anglia region.
Network Rail and Greater Anglia said they had installed new track circuits, cut back vegetation and increased their cleaning regime for autumn 2020 with an extra treatment train running across rural routes.