How To Deal With Level Crossings

Last Updated: 10/04/2021

Crossing a level crossing is the type of task that is likely to come up on a practical driving test, should the test centre be located near enough to one.

There are several types of level crossings in the UK, and while some inexperienced drivers can be nervous at the thought of having to drive across one, following the simple rules that apply for driving over level crossings actually make it a fairly simple manoeuvre.

However, despite this, sadly there are several deaths on level crossings in the UK every year, with a significant additional number of accidents which do not result in death.

If you were to add near misses in to the mix as well, you’re likely looking at hundreds of preventable and dangerous incidents which are taking place on these crossings.

The types of level crossings that you may come across while driving in the UK are as follows:

Automatic Barrier Level Crossings:

These are now the most frequently used crossings in the UK.

They consist of one or two barriers on each side of the tracks which automatically open and close when a train is approaching.

This will usually be preceded by a warning siren and flashing lights.

Gated Manual Level Crossings:

These types of level crossings are becoming less and less common.

They depend on railway staff manually opening and closing the barriers when trains are in the vicinity.

Un-Gated Level Crossings:

Finally, some level crossings may still exist which do not have any gates at all, nor warning lights.

These are now exceptionally rare but will still exist in very quiet, rural areas or on private roads.

These are reliant on drivers having excellent visibility of the railway line.

User-Operated Level Crossings:

These will rarely, if ever, be used for road traffic.

They are often still used in rural areas for on cycling and pedestrian pathways.

What You Will Learn

Despite there being different types of level crossings, the technique for crossing each is largely the same.

Even so, we will set out exactly what the steps should be for you to safely cross each type of level crossing to a standard which your examiner will be satisfied with.

In addition, this guide will also aim to educate you on the different types of crossings, give you further tips and insights in to what to look for at each and generally give you the confidence to cross safely whenever you come across one.

As always, we’re keeping things consistent by laying this guide out in our usual structure.

  • Step-By-Step Guide
  • Video Demonstration
  • Hints & Tips
  • Useful Information
  • Final Thoughts
  • Further Resources

Step-By-Step Guide

So that you’re properly equipped when you come across any type of railway level crossing while driving, we’ve split our step-by-step guide up in to four so that we’ve covered each type.

Automatic Barrier Level Crossings:

  • When you approach a level crossing, do so cautiously. Even if you are going to be able to drive straight across, the uneven and bumpy road surface as you cross the tracks will require you to slow down.
  • If the amber light is on or the red lights are flashing, you need to slow down to a stop behind the solid white ‘stop’ line.
  • If the amber light comes on and you have already crossed the white line, you can keep going to exit the crossing so long as your exit is clear.
  • If lights continue to flash for a long period of time after the train has passed, this probably means that another train is coming.
  • It is only safe to cross once the lights have completely gone off and the barriers are fully open again.

Gated Manual Level Crossings:

  • As you approach a gated manual level crossing, you should slow down and look out for railway staff.
  • If the gates are open, then proceed through the crossing if your exit is clear.
  • If a train is approaching, railway staff will close the gates on the crossing. If this happens, slow down to a stop before the white line, if one exists. If it doesn’t, leave a safe distance for the staff to operate the gates.

Un-Gated Level Crossings:

  • Approach un-gated crossings with caution. There will be signs warning that it is there.
  • They will usually only exist on quiet, rural roads. Pull-up to the crossing and check both ways to see if any trains are coming. Look, look and look again.
  • If your exit is clear, proceed over the crossing.

User-Operated Level Crossings:

  • In the rare scenario that you come across a level crossing for vehicles which is operated by you, the user, then you should prepare to stop the car short of the crossing.
  • Look both ways to ensure there is no train coming. If there is no train, open the gates on both sides of the crossing and drive through. After crossing, pull up safely and get out of the car.
  • Shut the gates on both sides of the railway. Never leave a level crossing gate open.

Video Demonstration

Hints & Tips

Level crossings can be incredibly dangerous if you do not adhere to the simple rules around their safe usage.

Many new or inexperienced drivers may find themselves focussed on whether the barriers are up or down and the lights flashing as they approach, but there are other things you need to consider every time you approach a level crossing.

Here are a few of those:

Never Enter A Crossing If The Exit Is Not Clear:

When you’re so focussed on the entry to a level crossing it can be easy to forget to check the opposite side.

You should never enter a level crossing unless the exit is clear.

Even if there are on trains coming, if you were to enter the crossing and be held-up while another car moves out of the way, disaster could strike in moments, leaving you no time to react.

Always check that your exit is clear before beginning to go over a level crossing.

Level Crossings Can Be Uneven So Slow Down On Approach:

No matter how experienced you are, you can be tempted to continue over a level crossing at a higher speed if it is clear to do so, however, always slow down.

By their very nature, level crossings can be bumpy and uneven – if you approach with speed you could easily lose control as you cross over the railway lines.

Not only is the immediate accident a problem but clearing the tracks before the next train also becomes vital. #

Don’t risk it.

Slow down and take your time.

Look, Look & Look Again:

The final tip is one we touched on earlier in the guide and that is to ensure you spend plenty of time looking to check it’s safe to cross the level crossing.

Look both ways at least a couple of times before crossing.

Trains can be travelling very quickly, so what you may not see on your first look may appear in view on your second or third.

Beware Of Pedestrians:

One final consideration with level crossings is the pedestrian element.

Most crossings will also have a part for pedestrians to walk over, plus train enthusiasts may also be present from time-to-time.

Whenever you approach a level crossing, be wary of pedestrians and where they may cross near to the road.

Useful Information

Level crossings have an important role to play.

There is a convenience element; allowing traffic to cross over a railway line so as to prevent delays.

There is also a key safety aspect, keeping both train passengers, railway staff and of course motorists and pedestrians safe and out of danger.

There are in the region of 5000 level crossings in the UK, with approximately 4000 of these being user-operated.

This means they will be unmanned and potentially not seen by railway staff for significant periods of time.

Therefore, as a responsible motorist, it is important that you report any damage or any issues at a level crossing as soon as possible to ensure the crossing stays safe.

To do so, contact Network Rail on 03457 114141.

Final Thoughts

Level crossings are a vital part of our railway and road networks and while a programme to replace as many as possible across the UK is on-going, it will take years to significantly reduce the numbers.

It’s unlikely they will ever be removed completely.

Therefore, it’s vitally important that you take the time to learn how to pass over level crossings and do some confidently and safely.

Like with many others parts driving skills, practice can truly make perfect.

Further Resources