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Railway employee flags signalling problems as a disaster waiting to happen

By Simon Ruppert

A local railway employee has contacted the Ensign to express concern regarding drivers going around Benalla's level crossings when the boom gates are down for an extended period of time.

Mr Smith*, who has several years’ experience working on Benalla's railway, said it was only luck that had so far prevented a car or truck being hit by a train.

Most locals will be aware that the level crossing barriers in Benalla are often down for for an extended period of time with no trains passing.

Mr Smith said this could sometimes be for more than two hours — although this is something ARTC disputes.

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“The current signalling is probably only about 10 or 12 years old now,” Mr Smith said.

“But it is totally inadequate for Benalla. The problem is to do with the interface between rail and road.

“Heavy vehicles are damaging the signalling as they drive over the track, and the safety default is for the gates to come down.”

Mr Smith said that the way the signals were set up meant that every time a train arrived at the station the gates came down in Nunn St. However, they remained down until the train left the station — even if it was delayed.

“There was a train waiting for a relief crew earlier this month so the gates were down on Nunn St for more than 100 minutes,” he said.

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“And in that 100 minutes we watched cars, caravans and even two semi-trailers — one loaded with water tanks, the other with new cars — drive around the barriers and cross anyway.

“They just go around. They have an obstructed view, but do it anyway.

“The police are there sometimes, but they are stretched and cannot put officers on the crossing every time they stay down.

“And these issues affect the Witt, Nunn, Arundel and Faithful street crossings.

“At times they have been down for two hours. It shuts off half the town.

On Tuesday level crossings in Benalla were down for an extended period of time once again. This is the Faithfull St crossing taken minutes after the photo above. 

“Some cars know to go under the rail crossing, but when Nunn and Arundel are down that route can get blocked by backed-up traffic.”

Mr Smith said he was disappointed that every time the town was told an issue was fixed, that did not actually seem to be the case.

“A few years back we had this brand new signalling put in. We assumed it would be state-of-the-art, but it was never up to the job, and will almost certainly cause an accident one day.”

An ARTC spokesperson said only a significant incident would cause level crossing boom gates to remain down for an extended period.

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“Crossings don’t go down for hours at a time simultaneously unless there has been a significant power outage or other incident that affects all crossings,” the spokesperson said.

“We are aware of an incident in early March caused by a lightning strike and the fault has been rectified. We regret the inconvenience caused to the Benalla community on this occasion.

“Level crossings are designed to ‘fail safe’ — that is, when there is an issue, level crossing boom gates and bells are activated automatically as a safety requirement.

“However, we are aware of the issue of extended operations of the crossing due to local rail operations — and signal failures — and how this has created frustration for some members of the community.

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“We have met with council to discuss the matter and are currently looking at ways that might reduce the length of time these particular level crossings are activated.

“In the interests of safety it is important that motorists abide by the road rules and do not drive around the boom gates, as trains are in operation.”

Mr Smith said one thing was "certain" — the signalling system in Benalla required a compete overhaul.

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