Why are we waiting?

Waiting for the level crossing gates

Some years ago, the late John Howlett wrote with his usual eloquence about the vagaries of the system of opening and closing the barriers on the level crossings at either end of Rye station. That was in 2015 and one might be forgiven for thinking that in almost seven years since that piece was written, Network Rail’s “improvements” that we are often told about, together with staff changes and practices, would have meant that the sometimes long waits John complained of would be a thing of the past. Sadly not.

As most will know, the line between Ashford and Hastings is mainly single track and the only practical passing point is at Rye station – very roughly halfway between the two towns. This means, of course that trains approaching from either end need to arrive at Rye at the same time. If one is a little later – or even earlier – than scheduled, the other has to wait at the platform for its arrival. All this while, the traffic barriers are down.

Sometimes, they will be raised at one end, or occasionally both ends while the trains are stationary and then lowered again when one or the other is ready to depart. But why only sometimes? There are, I am told, several different operators who work shifts in the recently refurbished signal box, so why are the barriers not raised by all of them when the trains are stationary, allowing traffic to clear, and then lowered again for a minute or two as they depart.

You might well say “What does a few minutes matter. We are all in too much of a hurry these days anyway,” and clearly at least one signalman would agree with that. Or perhaps he is an arch trade unionist and the rule book says he can only operate the necessary switchgear every so many minutes without demanding a pay rise for extra work. Or, as John Howlett imagines, is he just a bookworm who loses track of time? Either way, those minutes do matter.

The picture above shows what can happen, particularly when the town is full of summer visitors and traffic. Ferry Road is backed up into Udimore Road in one direction and right back to the Kettle of Fish roundabout and beyond in the other. The latter congestion will then effectively block Winchelsea Road, the Strand, South Undercliff and Cinque Ports Street, bringing the town almost to a standstill. An inconvenience to many people which could be largely avoided by a simple opening of the barriers for two or three minutes while the trains load and unload their passengers, and then opening them again as soon as the train has passed, rather than wait until it is half a mile away.

Simple, probably, in which case why doesn’t that happen all the time instead of just some of the time? Is it, as John suggests, just a case of an enthralling book? Or maybe he (or she – why shouldn’t it be a female signal person?) is under instruction from Southern Rail to create as much chaos as possible to demonstrate how much more efficient it would have been for the frustrated motorists to have travelled by train.

Image Credits: John Minter .


  1. I know this is an opinion piece and not a news article but it would have been much better had the writer undertaken some investigative journalism and asked Network Rail for an explanation. Railway operation is a complex safety critical business and there may well be a proper explanation – perhaps there could be a follow up article ?

  2. It is clear, on the Grove / Rope Walk crossing also, that one signal person is more averse to raising the gates between trains than the others. With John of old, we just sigh as say “It’s the bad man on today”.

  3. As Simon Parsons points out it would be better to ask network rail for an explanation, obviously he hasn’t had to deal with network rail. Absolute nightmare!!

  4. It’s an interesting issue, actually, and perhaps inconvenience is the least of it, given that many cars sit at the level crossing with their engines running – which is actually an offence under The Road Traffic Act. More significantly, a couple of years back, a coroner ruled that the death of a 6 yrs old girl named Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, was due to pollution from the nearby South Circular Rd in Lewisham. An idling car apparently produces twice the emissions of a car in motion, which all increases the risks to health. Given the proximity of homes and schools, we should be worrying less about delays at the level crossing and more about switching off our engines for the sake of Rye’s residents and school children.

  5. GH raises a good point re car drivers keeping their engines running whilst stationary for sometime.
    May be a Notice should be installed to say turn off the engine of your car when in a stationary que.
    Where I live I can smell the petrol/diesel in the house when vans and cars are waiting to turn or deciding where to go looking at their phones..

  6. Given the real risks to health (and there’s a fairly alarming list of diseases seemingly linked to particulate pollution) I think a sign would be very good use of council funds. The next step would be getting people to observe the sign. There was an interesting case in Kent where behavioural science was employed to increase compliance with the law in a similar circumstance. Food for thought…

  7. I totally agree for reasons given above that people should not leave their engines idling while waiting. Given the current cost of petrol I am surprised how many people do. For example its common for people to park in the Mint while waiting for fish and chips keeping their engines running for ten minutes or more. Some cars even park in our driveway and do not turn their engines off! I am not sure that signs would make much difference in these cases, but for the sake of our health its worth a try.

  8. I am glad I am not the only one concerned about pollution from running engines from stationary vehicles. I was hoping the increase in fuel costs might have an effect but a request sign to turn off engines would be good

  9. I think John Minter chose and wrote the wrong angle to this story, preferring to criticise the way the signalling staff carry out their duties. Never mind, the readers seem to have got there in the end…….

  10. Sorry I must side with John minter, as he states 7 years has passed and the problem still exists to this day,with the inconsistencies of different people manning the crossing, and thanks to the holdups pollution arises from some who prefer to keep their engines running, especially the elderly in cold weather.

  11. Rye is a backwater as far as the national rail network is concerned and we are lucky to still have it (sadly I am old enough to recall Beeching’s cuts in 1962 and how the local population were up in arms to retain the train service). Though it would have been beneficial to have retained the old footbridge for pedestrians to cross.
    Given that backdrop it is a sad indictment of our society that the lure of blame culture wins over the practice of patience. The “good man” in the signal box is doing his job, as is the “bad man”, conscientiously but differently. Some drivers have the good sense to turn their engine off whilst waiting, some do not. Some people have patience to wait, some become irritated. Some people may think it is part of the area’s charm and character that the car is not “King”, and thereby, drivers are not “royalty”.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here