Level crossings: everything you need to know to stay safe

Level crossing barriers active, crossing signals flash red, day.

Published 9 April 2021
Last updated 5 September 2023

What you need to know to keep safe at a level crossing. We cover what they are, why they can be dangerous and how to deal with them.

Now and again, we like to use this blog to tell you important safety stuff that we think every driver should know. This week, we’re focusing on level crossings.

What are they?

Level crossings are places where railway lines cross our roads. Unlike bridges, the track is actually embedded in the road surface. Level crossings can have automatic barriers and gates, or they can be open, with no gates or barriers.

Why can they be dangerous?

Well, it’s not too difficult, this one – put your vehicle in the way of a heavy metal and glass structure that’s moving at speed and there’s going to be a problem! The trouble starts when people give into temptation and try to jump the lights or weave round the barriers. In many cases, it’s difficult to judge how close the train is (or how fast it’s moving), so the gap between the vehicle attempting to cross and the train approaching the crossing could be far too small to avoid a potentially fatal collision.

On the level

The trick to staying safe is to know and understand the warnings. The first step is to learn the light sequences. Many level crossings have amber and red warning lights. Unless your vehicle has actually crossed the stop line, you should stop when you see the steady amber lights come on. The amber lights will then change to red flashing lights. You must remain stationary until the lights stop flashing, even if a train has passed you, as another train may be on the way.

Note: there are a few crossings with miniature warning lights that are red and green. In these cases, you should only cross when the green lights are showing.

Barriers to progress

Some level crossings use only lights to control traffic, whereas others have full or half barriers as well. When the red lights begin to flash, the barriers will come down. There should also be an audible alarm to warn pedestrians and drivers. Do not be tempted to try to get through before the barriers close – the amount of time between a warning activating and the train arriving can vary with the time of day and the train’s scheduled stopping pattern. You can never be sure, so do not take the risk.

At level crossings without lights, approach slowly and stop when the gates or barriers start to close.

Crossings without signals

In some cases, you may need to take extra responsibility. Not all level crossings have signals, so you must stop your vehicle and check for trains before you cross. If there’s a railway telephone, you MUST contact the signal operator to make sure it’s safe. Once you’ve checked the railway line in both directions, open the gates on either side of the crossing and check again that the line is empty. Drive across the line and close the gates behind you. If there’s a telephone, call the signal operator again to tell them you’ve crossed.

Be extra careful in these situations – keep checking for any signs that a train is approaching.

So there you have it: we’ve levelled with you (ahem) about the risks of level crossings. If you want more information, head over to the SDFL shop and pick up a copy of The Official DVSA Guide to Driving – the essential skills and The Official Highway Code.

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