As someone who lives in Melbourne but visits relatives just outside Ballarat a few times a year, I am fascinated with the ongoing saga of the Lydiard Street crossing gates.
Late on 30th May last year, a V/Line train from Melbourne that was meant to stop at Ballarat station instead sped through the platforms and crashed through the Lydiard Street crossing gates. The train eventually stopped about 600 metres beyond the station.
Fortunately only one person was injured. An Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigation is ongoing and while that happens, the gates have been left inoperable, closed across the road.
It's fair to say it's raised a lot of local interest. There's a definite sense that people thought this would all be resolved and a decision made within a few weeks.
In fact the ATSB investigation is unlikely to be completed until late 2021. They are very thorough, and authorities won't make a decision on it until it's done.
Some of the reactions have perhaps been a little over the top, with Save Our Station quoted in the Courier as saying:
"The gates are not being further investigated by ATSB and are not a contributor to the train crash. The decision by V/Line to investigate the gates has nothing to do with the accident. It is time V/Line stopped this act of bastardry, restored the gates and reopened the crossing."
I can understand the argument, but this seems a little over the top. There is also frustration that it's taking so long to reach a conclusion.
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In March the Courier reported that Chair of Commerce Ballarat Nick Thurlbeck believed the closure had not been given the same attention as it would have been given in Melbourne.
"It's unacceptable. A rushed decision for the long-term would not be wise [but] I don't think there's any excuse in the delay for an interim solution. I suspect what's in place now is the interim solution."
As for the time taken, a useful comparison might be Melbourne's New Street (Brighton) crossing gates. After similar incidents there, the crossing was closed "temporarily" - just like Lydiard Street is now. It took until 2010 for the government to decide to keep the crossing closed permanently.
This was controversial - the State Opposition campaigned on it in the run-up to the 2010 election, and after a change of government they eventually re-opened the crossing in 2013 with conventional modern boom gates. So these things can take some time, regardless of the location.
New Street isn't in a town centre of course, but I'd wager it gets a similar level of traffic, and a lot more trains. It's also further from alternative points to cross the line.
Some locals have cited the disruption of having Lydiard Street closed - with fears that this would be the permanent solution, with the gates left in position but not operational. This is similar to numerous locations along Melbourne's Upfield line.
But would it be very disruptive? Pedestrians can still cross the railway line there. Some local buses have to detour currently, but the new railway station interchange to open in mid-2021 will mean they will no longer use that section of Lydiard Street.
Motor vehicles can detour up to the Armstrong Street overpass, a couple of hundred metres away. Passing through the area recently by car, detouring around the crossing took under a minute. In fact it may have been quicker than waiting for the gates to open when a train passes through.
Would it take a bit longer in peak hour? Probably, especially the unsignalised right hand turns.
I love old crossing gates. I live not too far from the New Street gates, and miss seeing them working. It's lovely that the Ballarat gates lasted so long in operation.
But at some point, safety and the requirements of a modern rail system must trump heritage. As with open doorways and unlocked doors on trams and trains, what was once an acceptable risk sometimes is no longer seen that way.
Broadly there are probably three long term options they could land on for Lydiard Street:
- Close the crossing permanently, leaving old the gates in place across the road for heritage reasons - as now
- Re-open the crossing but use modern boom gates, with the gates on display nearby - according to a recent poll in the Courier, this seems to be a popular option, though it may not please the heritage purists
- Re-open the crossing with operational heritage gates - which of course leaves the risk it'll happen again
Even if the gates weren't at fault in this incident, they are a factor in the safety of the railway at this location. It's quite possible that the latter option simply won't be deemed an acceptable risk in 2021. Given how long it took to resolve New Street, don't expect a conclusion on this any time soon.
Daniel Bowen is a blogger and campaigner with the Public Transport Users Association
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