HIGHLAND transport chief Graham Phillips has welcomed confirmation this week that safety barriers are to be installed at every level crossing in the region within two years.
The SNP Sutherland councillor told the Northern Times it was "about time, too".
Network Rail will spend around £4million to fit the equipment at 20 locations in the wake of a horrific crash in the north that claimed three lives.
Brora, Dalchalm, Kirkton and Corpach will be the first to benefit from the new, mini barriers.
A full-size barrier, however, will be fitted at Halkirk in Caithness where Inverness pensioners Angus and Margaret Mackay, both 81, and Mr Mackay’s 66-year-old brother Donnie from Latheron were killed when their car was in collision with a train in September 2009.
That tragedy prompted nationalist MSP Dave Thompson to press for all 23 open level crossings in Scotland to be upgraded.
His party colleague and recently appointed Highland transport committee chairman Graham Phillips said: "My reaction to this is ‘about time too’.
"I have always supported Dave’s campaign – especially after a train went past my own nose as I started on a level crossing I thought was safe. Once that happens to you, all confidence in the system is lost.
"I have been baffled and infuriated by Network Rail’s refusal, until now, to put the most basic safety measures in place. Nor have I ever accepted that closing level crossings is the right way to solve the problem.
"I grew up with level crossings with gates. Railways have to share the landscape with the people who live and work in it, and routes have to be kept open. What’s important is making them safe."
The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) had called for automatic barriers to be fitted to crossings at Brora, Dalchalm, Kinbrace and Lairg – categorising those as priority locations.
Each of those open crossings, currently controlled only by a sequence of lights, has been the scene of a collision between a vehicle and a train in the past 12 years.
The most recent drama was at Kinbrace in April, 2008 when local man Gordon Mackenzie had a fortunate escape after the Land Rover he was driving was in collision with a train.
Crossings at Brora and Lairg top the league table in Sutherland for the highest number of reported incidents – 36 each between 1998 and January, 2010.
There are almost 600 level crossings in Scotland, of which 89 feature on the public road network.
Network Rail is currently responsible for 115 automatic open crossings in the UK.
The RAIB warned that more than half of the country’s crossings pose a high risk to drivers and should be fitted with safety barriers.
Network Rail confirmed on Monday that its three-month trial of a new, short-barrier level crossing system had been successfully completed at Ardrossan Harbour in the west of Scotland.
The roll-out is scheduled to be completed by 2014.
Network Rail route managing director for Scotland, David Simpson, said: "We have developed and successfully tested an affordable, innovative system that will improve the safety of open level crossings.
"I welcome the support of the Scottish Government in the development and roll-out of this new, safer system."
Infrastructure and Capital Investment Secretary, Alex Neil, said: "Our level crossings are among the safest in Europe and 10 times safer than the European average. But every accident on a level crossing is one too many."
He added: "Tragic incidents like the ones at Delny and Halkirk further confirm the need for all partners, including road users and pedestrians, to work together to do everything we can to reduce the risks."
Caithness Sutherland and Ross SNP MSP Rob Gibson has welcomed the news that Network Rail are to upgrade all of Scotland’s level crossings.
Mr Gibson said: "In the past there have been fatal accidents at open level crossings in my constituency, most tragically at Halkirk and Delny in recent years.
"So to hear that the money has been made available to make to put in safety measures is very welcome and will come as a relief to many people across the North.
"It is good to know that the crossings at Dalchalm and Brora have been chosen to be the first fitted with the new min barriers.
"This is good news I warmly welcome the fact that some of the most dangerous crossings are to be upgraded. I pay tribute to those in the community that have campaigned long and hard to make safer crossings a reality."