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Why are level crossings in France so deadly?

Questions are once again being asked why so many people in France lose their lives at level crossings after a woman and three children died in a crash in north east France.

Why are level crossings in France so deadly?
AFP
The issue of safety at level crossings in France is a longstanding one and some of the tragedies recorded include the case where at least five school pupils were killed when a bus was mowed down by a train at a crossing in south west France.
 
The numbers of fatalities at crossings make for alarming reading.
 
In 2014 there were 121 collisions recorded at level crossings in France that left 25 people dead. Back in the year 2000 the death toll was 51. Last year in 2016 there were 31 deaths and 15 serious injuries after 111 accidents.
 
In all, between 2011 and 2016 187 people were killed at level crossings in France and scores more left seriously injured.
 
 
 
 
In all, France has over 15,000 level crossings on its rail network, some of which are considered more dangerous than others. While over 10,000 have automatic barriers and warning lights, not all do.
 
In fact according to SNCF some 2,777 don't have barriers, only a sign that warns drivers of the crossing.
 
 
In November this year a couple and their 10-year-old child were killed at a level crossing at Bonneville-sur-Tues in Calvados, Normandy when their vehicle was hit by a train. There were no barrier at the crossing, nor were there lights.There was just a sign to indicate its presence on the road.
 
For French rail chiefs there is no doubt where the blame lies for the number of incidents.
 
“98 percent of accidents at level crossings are down to drivers not respecting the rules of the road,” a source at SNCF told The Local. In other words drivers ignore closing barriers or drive around them – an offence that will result in a fine of €135 and four point penalty.
 
The rail chiefs list “impatience” as the number one cause for drivers illegally passing the barriers, followed by a lack of vigilance and non-compliance with the highway code.
 
 
The other two percent are caused by malicious acts, which could include the crossing being vandalised or damaged in some way.
 
According to SNCF in 59 percent of cases, drivers provoked accidents at level crossings by passing the barrier when they were closed or in the process of closing. In 38 percent of cases, drivers made an error and ended up stuck on the crossing.
 
A 2015 survey carried out by SNCF revealed one in five French drivers admitted illegally passing the barriers at a level crossing.
 
SNCF are also trying to raise awareness among drivers of the dangers of level crossings, notably among young motorists. For example many underestimate the distance needed for a train to come to a halt. If it is travelling at 100km/h it will need a kilometre to break to a standstill. 
 

But a source at SNCF also told The Local that safety at the crossings can always be improved, which is why they are currently spending around €40 million a year on revamping the level crossings to improve security.
 
And there is no doubt that some level crossings are deemed more dangerous than others. As of 2017 there are 162 considered more dangerous than others.
 
Although SNCF says often it is just acase of those with most road and rail traffic are the ones where most accidents occur. In all some 15 percent of accidents are concentrated in one percent of crossings.
 
SNCF no longer build new ones and are slowly and each year six or seven of the crossings, deemed the most risky, or where accidents regularly take place, are taken away altogether. 
 
 
 
But the cost of removing them can be extremely expensive – up to €15 million, due to the need to build tunnels or bridges. 
 
Rail chiefs are also spending millions on experimenting with new technology to boost safety, for example if an obstacle is detected on a crossing then a message is relayed to nearby trains which triggers the breaking system.
 
Cameras have also been installed at crossings to catch rogue drivers who refuse to wait and zig zag their way through the barriers. Authorities say the cameras are having a big impact in cutting down the number of infractions by drivers at crossings.
 
SNCF lists instructions on its website for how to act as a driver or cyclist at a level crossing and urges motorists to show patience and always stop before a level crossing where there are no barriers present. The onus is onthe motorist to check to see whether it is safe to cross.
 
The video below is a reminder of the rules to follow at level crossings.
 

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How to find cheap train tickets in France

Travelling by train is one of the best ways to see France - even with a mandatory mask on. Here - from railcards to sales - is how you can make it even better by cutting the cost of your ticket.

A blue high-speed Ouigo low-cost TGV train arriving at  de l'Est railway station in Paris, with the the Sacre-Coeur Basilica in the background
From cheap services to railcards, here's how to save money on train travel. Photo: Joel Saget / AFP

Railcards are the most common way to cut the cost of a ticket. In some cases, the card can even pay for itself in one journey. France’s rail operator SNCF has a range of cards available for everyone from impoverished students to regular business travellers with an expenses account to burn.

But if you’re not a regular traveller there are also a range of offers plus cheaper services to opt for.

Let’s start with the railcards.

Liberté card

This one’s really for business travellers, who use the TGV or Ouigo and Intercite trains regularly. And it comes with a price to match – €399 for a year. This guarantees cardholders 60 percent off SNCF’s Business Première fares when travelling standard class, and  45 percent off Business Première fares when travelling 1st class. Plus, there’s between 25 percent and 50 percent off TER fares in certain regions, and it’s valid for use in other European countries.

Forfait pass

Effectively a season ticket, this one’s for commuters who regularly use TGV INOUI or Intercité services to get to work. Prices vary based on how much you travel, and you can get annual, monthly or weekly passes. Click here for a calculation of how much you will have to pay.

Avantage Senior 60+ card

SNCF relatively recently rebranded its railcards under the Avantage umbrella. If you’re aged 60 or over and travel occasionally with TGV Inoui, Intercités or TER in France, you will save 30 percent on first and standard class travel, for an annual fee of €49. And there’s 60 percent off ticket prices for up to three accompanying children aged between four and 11.

In fact, standard fares are capped for all destinations in France, no matter when you book. And that’s on top of a 30 percent guaranteed discount on 1st- and standard-class train tickets. 

You’re guaranteed affordable fares, even at the last minute. They’re currently capped as follows:

  • €39 or less for a short journey (under 90 minutes)
  • €59 or less for a medium-length journey (between 90 minutes and three hours)
  • €79 or less for the longest journey (over three hours)

Plus, there are savings on food and drink prices on the train – as well as other perks that are worth looking into.

Avantage Adulte Card

If you’re aged 27-59 and take TGV Inoui, Intercités or TER trains often, it’s worth looking into the Avantage Adulte card – which has replaced the Avantage Weekend and Avantage Famille cards – because you’ll save 30 percent on first and standard class tickets for the annual €49 fee.

Discounts extend to accompanying adults, and there’s 60 percent off ticket prices for up to three accompanying children aged between four and 11.

As with the Senior card, standard class fares are capped for all destinations in France. And you get the onboard perks too, including 15 percent off food and drink from the trolley.

Avantage Jeune Card

For anyone aged 12 to 27, the Avantage Jeune card will save you 30 percent on TGV Inoui and Intercité services that require booking for the annual €49 fee.

Standard class fares are capped for all destinations in France. And you get the onboard perks too, including 15 percent off food and drink from the trolley.

Other ways to save money

If you’re not a regular travellers and don’t want a railcard, there are other ways to save money when travelling.

Ouigo trains

SNCF’s low-cost TGV service offers high-speed cut-price travel in and out of Paris to 17 French destinations. There are drawbacks though, the trains have fewer on-board services and some of them only go to stations close to a city, rather than the city-centre station – so it’s worth checking when you book exactly where you will end up.

Children under 12 years of age can travel for €5 all year long, or €8 to or from a station in Paris.

Railcards are valid on Ouigo trains, cutting ticket prices further.

Happy Hour

Be aware of last-minute ‘Happy Hour’ deals on available on select days for selected Intercité trains to a selection of destinations around France. You could save up to 50 percent on ticket prices. And, yes, railcards are valid.

Ticket sales

Watch out, too, for announcements of when tickets are available for sale. From November 3rd, for example, rail tickets are available up to March 27, 2022 – and up to July 2, 2022, for Inoui tickets.

Early booking may get you a good deal, and SNCF offers regular deals particularly around peak travel times such as summer and Christmas. Downloading the SNCF app will get you advance notification of sales.

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