Rail infrastructure company Infrabel has launched a campaign to highlight the problem of stray farm animals on railway tracks, and encourage owners to provide suitable fencing.
The problem is a serious one: earlier this year Infrabel announced that delays caused by animals on the tracks averaged one hour a day in 2020, whether the animal was involved in an accident or not.
The cow is the most common animal to be involved in such an incident, mainly because there are more cows in trackside fields than any other animal. But cows are not alone.
This week, on Monday, a pony was running loose on the tracks at Balegem, part of the commune of Oosterzele in East Flanders. Unfortunately the animal was hit by a train and killed, causing a delay of two hours on the line.
And farm animals are not the only victims. Wild animals and pets are also the victims when they venture on to railway lines. “It often happens that animals are walking on the tracks,” Infrabel spokesperson Thomas Baeken told Vilt newsletter. “We have already had the entire zoo on the tracks, so to speak.”
But cows are the most common victims of rail accidents, and also among the most damaging. Compared to animals like sheep, goats or ponies, cows are large and heavy, and can cause serious damage while themselves being killed.
Meanwhile all animals together caused an average of one hour a day of delays as a result of accidents, and more frequently their mere presence on the tracks. In 2020 there were 155 reports of loose animals, including 45 reports of fatalities, Infrabel said.
The highest number of cases involve deer of one sort or another, followed by dogs and wild boar. No ponies featured on the list in 2020, to the relief of Infrabel, given that this week’s accident led to cumulative delays lasting 5,342 minutes.
But not all incidents lead to fatalities. In most cases, delays are the worst outcome, since trains on the line have to slow down or stop completely. That led last year to 15,448 minutes delay, or more than ten days of lost time for the whole network.
The growing number of incidents, fatal or otherwise, has now led Infrabel to launch a campaign to draw the attention of animal owners – whether farmers or pet owners – to the need to protect their animals in the vicinity of railway lines.
In most cases that involves installing adequate fencing, to restrain animals in fields while at the same time protecting the animals themselves from being injured. ‘Adequate’ meaning high enough to stop the animal jumping over (a minimum of one metre for a goat, 120cm for a donkey but only 80cm for a sheep). The campaign also gives advice on materials: no electric wire for sheep or barbed wire for donkeys, but it is advised for cattle and horses.
Infrabel stresses that railway time-keeping is not the only concern; animal welfare is also a consideration, as are the costs of incidents. And the owners of animals are not always asked to pay.
“If it’s the first time, it often ends with a conversation and a warning,” a spokesperson for the company said. “But if an animal from the same owner gets onto the tracks several times, the owner can be held accountable for the costs.”