On 24 July 2014, Charlotte lost her life in Groenendael, Belgium, hit by a train while she was on the tracks taking a selfie. This tragedy – the unfinished story of a 12-year-old girl – is at the heart of Infrabel’s new awareness campaign. Charlotte becomes a “lifeline” to those who take risks in the vicinity of railway property. Last year in Belgium, 14 people died in accidents at level crossings or while venturing onto railway tracks.
Charlotte’s life: like an unfinished painting
“Unfinished Story” is the name chosen by Infrabel for its latest awareness campaign.
Charlotte was enjoying life to the fullest. On 24 July 2014, the 12-year-old ventured onto the railway tracks on the Ottignies-Brussels line near Groenendael to take some pictures. A selfie would ultimately cost her her life.
Six years later, with the help of Charlotte’s mother, Infrabel is targeting those who – deliberately in some cases, unwittingly in others – put their lives at risk by adopting bad behaviour in the surroundings of the railway.
Last year, nine people were killed at level crossings in Belgium because they were not careful enough. In addition to these nine people, five others died like Charlotte after walking onto the railway tracks to take a shortcut, for fun or because of the thrill of danger.
Infrabel sees Charlotte’s story, told with great modesty and emotion by her mother, as a “lifeline” for these people. Charlotte once dreamt of being a graphic designer or artist. Now, however, the painting of her life will remain unfinished.
It may sound like good news: when Infrabel launched its new awareness campaign, the number of accidents at level crossings had never been as low as in the previous year.
Infrabel recorded 23 accidents in 2020 versus 45 in 2019 – a drop of almost 50%. However, an analysis of the figures reveals that this decrease is artificial. It is undoubtedly explained to a large extent by the Covid-19 crisis and a cumulative decrease in the number of vehicles on the roads due to traffic restrictions and increased remote working, as well as a reduction in rail traffic. This is evidenced by the fact that only one accident was recorded at the peak of lockdowns in Belgium, i.e. in March/April and October/November 2020.
Unfortunately, this downward trend is not reflected in the number of victims: a 50% decrease in accidents nevertheless caused nine deaths and four serious injuries (versus seven deaths and six serious injuries in 2019), illustrating the need for caution. Non-compliance with the highway code remains the number one cause of such tragedies: slaloming between barriers caused 12 of the 23 accidents, resulting in six deaths and two injuries. The majority of victims lived in the town in which the level crossing was located or in a neighbouring town – proof that accidents are not caused by lack of local knowledge, but rather by recklessness associated with habit.
The 2020 statistics nevertheless offer an encouraging lesson: outside the Belgian port areas, the number of accidents has been showing a slow downward trend for several years.
As of December 31 2020, the Belgian rail network had 1,662 level crossings, i.e. 38 less than one year earlier and 410 less than in 2005, when Infrabel was created.
When it is not possible to remove a level crossing, investments are made in strengthening safety through additional means (barriers, signage, etc.). In 2020, 43.5 million euro – a small part of which was subsidised by the EU – was granted for the removal and renewal of infrastructure at level crossings.
Infrabel recorded 316 incidents in 2020, including “simple” barrier strikes or road accidents occurring near level crossings, compared to 348 the previous year. The resulting disruption caused an average delay of one and a half hours each day (one hour and 47 minutes in 2019).
In addition to accidents at level crossings, railway trespassing also generates its share of tragedy. In 2020, such dangerous behaviour claimed the lives of five people and left seven seriously injured (versus one death and three serious injuries in 2019). Though high, these figures are below the European average.
The number of such intrusions, whether in stations (46%) or in the middle of the railway tracks (45%), fell for the third consecutive year. 614 cases were reported in 2020 versus 705 in the previous year (-13%). They occurred mainly during the evening rush hour (one in three cases). Here again, this decrease can be linked to the coronavirus crisis, as April and November had the smallest numbers of cases.
Finally, the latest analysis of the 2020 figures shows that trespassing – which often results in total interruption of traffic as a precautionary measure – generated 95,943 minutes of cumulative delays last year, or four hours and 22 minutes per day, compared to five hours and 52 minutes per day in 2019.
Infrabel continued to implement deterrent measures in 2020, in particular with the installation of five kilometres of additional barriers limiting access to tracks in areas more prone to infringement. However, no infrastructural measure is sufficient to change bad behaviour. Infrabel is hopeful that the memory of Charlotte’s unfinished story will help to prevent further tragedy.