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What should you do if you break down on a railway level crossing

There are around 6000 public and private level crossings in the UK and every year there are several hundred near misses with vehicles and pedestrians and several fatalities.

You shouldn’t need to stop on a railway crossing because you should always make sure there’s a clear gap the other side of it before proceeding; if backed-up traffic forces you to stop on the crossing, you are at risk of being hit by a train. If traffic is blocked the other side of the crossing, wait for it to clear, then go.

Stalling vs breaking down

If you stall on a railway crossing, don’t panic. Put it in neutral (or P if you are driving an automatic car) and turn the car off. Try restarting the car. Don’t run the battery down, though.

If the barriers are up and the lights and/or warning bells aren’t on, you have plenty of time, so don’t abandon the car immediately. If you can’t get it started, you could try pushing it (make sure it’s in neutral with the handbrake off). If you have a manual vehicle, put it in first or reverse gear and crank the starter motor. This will usually move the car forwards or backwards enough to get it off the tracks. This won’t work in modern cars where the clutch needs to be depressed to start the engine or where there’s a starter button rather than a key.

If there’s no train coming, use the telephone at the trackside to inform the signal controller. If there’s no telephone, call emergency services.

However, if the lights are flashing and the barriers are down you must get everyone out of the car immediately and at least 50m away from the car. It’s preferable to move in a direction that’s more towards the approaching train rather than in the same direction as if the train hits the car, debris will be scattered in the direction of travel.

Don’t call the signal controller as they won’t be able to do anything that the train driver wouldn’t already be doing (i.e. applying full brakes).

If you are at a manned level crossing (of which there are still a very small number), contact the signal controller there.

Drivers of long, oversized or low vehicles

Some railway crossings are not level with the road, i.e. they are raised. At these, there is a risk that a long or low vehicle could become beached. Check any height restrictions for crossings where there are cables and, if your vehicle is oversized, take care not to hit signage or the barrier arms.

Farmers cause around 50 incidents a year on level crossings. Farmers often have private crossings and need to pay attention. A train could come at any time – freight trains and other trains are not necessarily listed on a public timetable.

Cyclists and motorcyclists

Cyclists and riders of motorbikes with skinny wheels are at risk of getting a wheel stuck in the tracks, but this would mean that they are not riding perpendicularly across the tracks. Riders should always ride directly across the tracks, not parallel to them.

What does the Highway Code say?

The Highway Code Rule 299 says:

Incidents and breakdowns. If your vehicle breaks down, or if you have an incident on a crossing you should

  • get everyone out of the vehicle and clear of the crossing immediately
  • use a railway telephone if available to tell the signal operator. Follow the instructions you are given
  • move the vehicle clear of the crossing if there is time before a train arrives. If the alarm sounds, or the amber light comes on, leave the vehicle and get clear of the crossing immediately

Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.

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