Bridge bashing and running reds a headache for UK Network Rail

With five bridges hit by road traffic every day, and an increasing number of crossing violations and trespass incidents, the UK infrastructure manager, Network Rail is renewing calls for better behaviour at railway interfaces. Freight operators would welcome that too.

Earlier this week, a busy line though the city of Cambridge was put out of action after a road truck hit a railway over bridge. The lorry, wrecked in the process, not only closed the road to traffic, but forced the closure of the line too, which serves the town of Ely, and connects with the important intermodal port at Felixstowe. It remained closed while what was described as substantial damage was assessed.

Bridges and level crossings too

Bridge strikes are not confined to the UK. However, the age of the railway system – the oldest in the world – means there are many places where bridges are restricted in clearance. With more traffic than ever on the UK roads, and more overseas drivers bringing large, modern articulated trailers into the country, there is a ready-made accident waiting to happen. After all, with the British Imperial measurement system still in every-day use, it can be confusing. Unfortunately, the majority of incidents are entirely home grown, so there really is no excuse for careless Brits, bashing their own bridges. It is primarily a domestic problem.

Hit so hard, this bridge in Cambridge was lifted from it’s parapets and out of action for three days (Network Rail)

It does not stop at bridges. Level crossings should be immune from bashing, but an endless stream of video evidence shows private motorists and commercial vehicle drivers risking calamity by attempting to beat the barriers. Even worse, countless pedestrian incidents are recorded every year, as people take short cuts and gamble with the prospect of surviving being hit by a train.

Flashing red lights are there for a reason

The infrastructure management agency Network Rail says it has its hands full dealing with incidents. In August, at one crossing in Kent, in South East England, there were 13 instances of drivers running flashing lights and dodging around closing barriers in just two months. At one point, there were four incidents in four days.

“I can’t believe I’ve got to say this, but the flashing red lights are there for a reason, safety”, said Network Rail route director for Kent, Fiona Taylor. “Some drivers are even swerving round closing barriers – when a train is on its way – is just astonishing.”

Picturesque East Farleigh, Kent. Dubiously among the network’s most violated crossings (

Similarly, drivers, often of goods vehicles but occasionally double-deck buses, just forget the size of their vehicles, and approach bridges with sometimes disastrous consequences.

Police take matters seriously

Network Rail report all instances to the authorities. British Transport Police Inspector Jonathan Pine, who is embedded in Network Rail’s crime team in Kent and Sussex, said they take all incidents very seriously. “We will prosecute anyone who runs through our level crossing lights. There are no circumstances where it is safe to go past flashing red lights and anyone who has dealt with the aftermath of an accident on a level crossing knows how terrible the results will be.”

Awareness campaign

With the UK rail system officially off limits, pedestrian trespass is also an problem, and can happen anywhere. It is a major issue to police, so Network Rail, in collaboration with freight and passenger operators, have an ongoing programme of prevention, which they call ‘you versus the train’ ( While aimed primarily at youths, who may be responsible for acts of vandalism, the scheme is also designed to catch criminals who habitually steal signalling equipment and severely disrupt the railway for all users. Replacing stolen signal cable can be just as difficult as repairing a damage bridge, even if capturing those responsible can be a more difficult matter than dealing with a red-faced truck driver.

As if this image is not shocking enough, this less than proud parent in East Yorkshire is standing with his back to the direction of travel (Network Rail)

Meanwhile, the battered bridge in Cambridge has been repaired and services are returning to normal. As for the driver of the truck, his normal will take rather longer to repair, and his truck will not be retuning to service any time soon. A visit from Inspector Pine may well be his next engagement.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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