26th June 2021

Hatches Railway Level Crossing

Author: Graham O'Connell:

The Hatches Level crossing is a popular route to Farnborough North Station, Farnborough itself, the Blackwater Valley Path and, for fishermen, Pitts Lakes. It is a public bridleway (no.19) with a footpath crossing, emergency phone and whistleboards for approaching trains. Despite being a designated bridleway there is a Traffic Regulation Order in place preventing use by horses.

The line is used mainly by passenger trains on the Wessex Route and by some freight. There are up to 89 trains per day (pre-Covid). The line speed is a maximum of 60mph though actual speeds are usually less than this.

Surveys in recent years have estimated pedestrian and cyclist numbers at figures ranging between 207 and 311 per day. However, it seems likely that this may have increased since lockdown.

Safety record
There is no accident history on the crossing. It is worth noting that on over 6,000 crossings there have only been two pedestrian fatalities a year in the last couple of years. This means that statistically you would expect a fatality on a crossing around every 3,000 years. That said, the risk rating for this crossing is very high - the second highest of the 186 crossings on the Wessex line. There has recently been an increase in so-called ‘near misses’ but over time there has been around 3 per year on average. We don’t know the detail of these incidents but typically they tend to be people rushing to cross after the train horn has blown, some not looking and, often with headphones, not hearing either, and in some areas youngsters seeing it as a ‘game’.

There are particular risk factors at this location including a relatively high number of crossings and fairly frequent trains, there is what is called ‘low sighting time’ meaning you don’t have long between seeing a train and it arriving at the crossing, and there can be some sun glare affecting sight in a southerly direction.

Recent Changes and Noise
In recent years the gates have been improved, the signage has been upgraded and the newer broadband train horns have become more noticeable. Trains sound their horns between 06:00 and 23:59 for obvious safety reasons but it is the audibility of the horns over this 18 hour period that has caused complaints from many who live nearby.

Some may say that the trains were there first and people moved in knowing they were near a line. That is true. But it is also true that train horns have changed. The sound now spreads further to the side - which is important on a curving track - and although the decibel level of the horn is no louder, the decibel level in nearby homes has significantly increased.

Options for Improvement
Network Rail have a strong focus on safety and they regularly undertake safety reviews, with level crossings being a particular area of concern. Combined with the complaints about noise, this has caused them to look at alternative options and changes that might be put in place. However, recent changes to the Office of Rail Regulation guidance and innovations in footbridge designs means that a fresh look at the options and their relative merits is necessary.

Our formative view of those options is shown below. Although this is our own inexpert analysis, we hope that the fact that it is straightforward, objective and impartial may be helpful to fellow local residents, if only in suggesting questions that need to be answered.

Option 1: Footbridge (steps only)
This is perhaps the cheapest option but does have a number of disadvantages. It is not accessible to wheelchair users nor for fishermen with wheelbarrows. It is also problematic for most cyclists, those with pushchairs or luggage, and for the elderly and infirm.

It may appear on the face of it to be a safer option - it eliminates the risk of contact with trains - but there are different risks. For example, falls on steps can be serious and hooligans have been known to drop things on the track from bridges. Network rail do not publish figures on footbridge accidents so it is hard to directly compare the different risks.

In the existing location there is insufficient space for a footbridge, especially on the east side. It may be that Network Rail are considering an alternative crossing point, perhaps from Spencer Close.

Based on current information our opinion is that a stepped footbridge is not a suitable option.

Option 2: Footbridge (with steps and a ramp)
This overcomes many, but not all, of the problems associated with a steps only bridge. However, it is larger and even more visually intrusive. Both forms of bridge may reduce privacy in houses located nearby but both would also mean that trains do not need to sound a horn.

The location of such a bridge would be key: there is insufficient space at the current crossing point. An alternative location may not be popular with those living nearest to a bridge: they may well have chosen to live in a cul-de-sac, for example, because it is more private and quiet.

There is a new design of footbridge that is both cheaper and, arguably, more attractive than traditional designs. Details of such a bridge design with ramps has yet to be announced.

This may be a viable option or it may be a monstrous intrusion. We would need far more information and an illustration before expressing a view on potential suitability.

Option 3: Underpass
Generally the topography does not lend itself to an underpass. There is insufficient space in the current crossing but it may be possible in an alternative location. This is possibly the safest option from a physical point of view but underpasses do not always feel safe, especially in the hours of darkness. They can also attract vandalism.

We are not certain whether this would be a viable option so further detailed information would be helpful.

Option 4: Miniature Stop Lights
These stop:go pedestrian lights would be combined with audible warning devices, obstacle detection technology and red light safety cameras. They would allow the existing crossing to continue pretty much as now but in a much safer way. Similar technology is being rolled out in other locations (in the last 10 years over 100 miniature stop lights have been installed on similar crossings).

The technology has moved on rapidly in recent years. Lower voltage LED lights have reduced running costs and increased reliability. Traditionally maintenance costs have been high but these too are now reducing. The audible warnings produce some noise but it is far less and far more localised than that of train horns.

The safety record is good but it would not eliminate the ‘idiot factor’ and the risk of people not heeding the warnings.

This is a potentially viable option but whether residents would see this as more or less desirable than the other options would need to be tested as part of the consultation.

Option 5: Do Nothing
By definition this would not improve the current situation nor make it worse. Whether people would become accustomed to the noise or whether it would grate more and more is hard to tell, though from those people we have spoken to it seems the latter is more likely than the former.

In view of the safety risks as well as the complaints from residents we feel that this is not a desirable option. If a suitable improvement can be agreed then that would be preferable to inaction.

There would seem to be some options worthy of proper evaluation. We hope that Network Rail will be willing to provide a detailed assessment and comparison of these options and then actively consult with residents to seek their informed opinions.

Whilst determining changes to the crossing is not a democratic decision - it will ultimately be for Network Rail to decide on the preferred way forward and pay for any improvements - certain permissions would need to come from the local councils. We hope all parties will be keen to genuinely take account of residents’ views as part of that decision making process and our local councillors appear willing to make sure that happens.

We look forward to getting more information and updating our assessment of the options as necessary. We also look forward to hearing more about what will happen next and when.