Walkers are welcome to use level crossings on public roads, provided you abide by any guidance, warning lights or barriers.
However, when it comes to 460 ‘private’ level crossings in Scotland, there is some disagreement about walkers’ legal rights – even though many private crossings, even in remote areas, will be used by dozens of walkers on busy weekends.
Can I walk across ‘private’ level crossings in Scotland?
Our recommendation is for walkers to continue to responsibly cross railway lines in Scotland in the same way as they have been doing since the railways were first constructed.
Private level crossings usually do not involve public roads and often include tracks for use by farm or estate vehicles, and pedestrians. They often have large blue signs stating 'Private Level Crossing – Authorised Users Only'.
Network Rail believes that you’re committing criminal trespass if you use a private Scottish level crossing without authorisation.
Yet in reality, many of Scotland’s best-known walking guidebooks describe routes which use private level crossings, which make up 70% of all level crossings in Scotland.
British Transport Police appears to take a different view, indicating that they would not regard the use of a formal crossing point as constituting criminal trespass – and we’re not aware of anybody being charged with using them.
What precautions should walkers take?
Walkers should be extra vigilant to ensure that they are not crossing when trains are approaching, and larger groups particularly need to take care.
Remember modern trains are relatively quiet, especially when approaching on a downhill section and can be travelling at considerable speed.
Why do people want to use private level crossings?
Walkers may find that the nearest public crossing is miles away, and in some cases crossings are established routes which walkers have been using since before the railways were built.
Private level crossings in Scotland often open up extensive areas of land of great value for recreational activities, meaning they are important for tourism and local economies.
For example, according to SNH, it is estimated that 5-6,000 people a year cross the railway line in the Drumochter Pass to access the hills on the west side, with no feasible alternative. If Network Rail wants to improve this situation, they should build a formal crossing point for pedestrians in the centre of the Pass and erect signs to tell walkers how they should cross. This could be supported by instructions to train drivers to sound their horns when approaching.
At Ben Lui, British Transport Police officers have been monitoring the main western route from Glen Lochy where walkers leave the car park and cross the railway line to access the mountain. We believe that the suggested alternative – using a low culvert and wading through the burn which feeds into the main river – can be dangerous due to slippery surfaces in the culvert, as well as deep water pools. We believe a better approach would be to continue walking across the railway line but with Network Rail signage in place to warn of the risk from approaching trains.
What is Ramblers Scotland doing about this?
Together with our National Access Forum partners, we’ve been monitoring this issue for more than a decade. This includes contributing to a 2013 report from the Law Commission and Scottish Law Commission. Read our initial response to the report.
While the Law Commissions’ joint report proposed a procedure for individual level crossings to be re-opened, we supported the Forum in suggesting an alternative approach which started from the position of recognising all existing level crossings as open to responsible walkers, wherever access rights apply on both sides of the level crossing. Network Rail would then need to apply to Scottish Ministers for closure of any particular crossings which may be shown to be significantly unsafe, under the new Health & Safety at Work safety regime. This alternative approach would be far more proportionate and appropriate, and more in keeping with Scottish access rights.
In2016, we tested Network Rail’s position with regard to a level crossing at Walnut Grove near Perth, which is both an asserted right of way and also a core path – yet is locked by NR. We have taken legal advice on this issue and have requested that Perth & Kinross Council take steps to get this obstruction removed from the crossing. We are awaiting a formal response from the council but understand they are considering removing the crossing from the core paths plan.
We have indicated to NR and BTP that the current approach that they are taking is completely impractical, and based on a misunderstanding of the legislative basis for the original construction of the railway lines, the subsequent use of the rail lines and the wider needs of society. We await consideration of the Law Commissions’ report by both the Westminster and Scottish governments.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you think you’ve been unreasonably challenged over the crossing of a line. This will help us make the case to the Scottish Government and other parties in our efforts to resolve these difficulties.