Questions after train tears into bus

Call for safety improvements at crossing

Last updated 05:00 02/11/2011
Alex Thatcher
PHIL REID/ Fairfax NZ
SHEER LUCK: Alex Thatcher, 16, was a passenger in the bus that was hit by a freight train at the railway crossing at Paekakariki township. The crash site is on the left, and what remains from the accident on the right.

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Emergency services and the community are calling for safety improvements at the Paekakariki crossing where a freight train ripped the back off a stranded bus minutes after passengers escaped.

The new Tranzit bus, contracted to Tranz Metro to replace a train service, got stuck on the tracks at the intersection about 10.30pm on Monday.

A KiwiRail employee sitting at the back of the bus saw the toll lights change from red to green and alerted the driver and passengers a freight train was coming.

The bus driver and KiwiRail employee ferried passengers off the bus minutes before the freight train hit, ripping the rear of the bus.

Fire, police and ambulance arrived at the scene and an elderly woman was treated for shock.

Paekakariki fire chief Paul Furfie said the undulating land at the crossing contributed to the bus "getting grounded" on the tracks.

"The driver was trying to rectify it – he thought no trains were running. He thought he was sweet but then a freight train came around the corner and cleaned them out," Mr Furfie said.

Brendan Nolan was in his nearby Beach Rd apartment when he heard "a gigantic explosion".

"Train brakes were shrieking as the freight train roared to a stop. The goods train came through full noise and tore the back of a bus to smithereens. Glass and bits of bus were all down the track.

"It would have been horrendous if people had been on the bus," Mr Nolan said.

Linley Schieb's son, Alex Thatcher, 16, was on the bus.

She lives in an apartment overlooking the railway line.

"We were very, very lucky. That crossing is terrible, we see accidents there a couple of times a year, hear lots of bangs. ... Drivers pile up trying to get onto the highway.

"Freight trains motor through. I am amazed someone has not been bowled sooner."

Kapiti Sergeant Ron Walker said there was obviously a problem at the intersection and it was lucky no-one was hurt.

Mr Furfie said traffic lights were the only sensible solution to fixing the intersection.

Paekakariki community board chairman Adrian Webster said the New Zealand Transport Agency and the Kapiti Coast District Council were looking at ways of safety-proofing the intersection.

Transport Accident Investigation Commission spokesman Peter Northcote said inquiries were under way. The accident would also be investigated by the police commercial investigation team and KiwiRail would investigate internally.

Kapiti Mana Police area commander Inspector John Spence said the bus had been only a week old. "Tranzit might have to use a different type of bus for that type of service."

He praised the bus driver and KiwiRail employee for acting coolly under pressure.

The train is at Hutt Workshops and KiwiRail expects it to be back in service within two weeks.

Tranzit spokeswoman Jenna Snelgrove said the bus driver was tired and shaken after a long night. "We are just grateful he is not hurt."

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The level crossing has full protection, including bells and barrier arms.

Ambulance spokesman John Osborn said no-one was taken to hospital or treated for injuries.

"They were bloody lucky. They all walked out of there and went down to the Lotto shop, I suspect."

Passenger tells of frantic dash

Alex Thatcher was sitting on the stranded bus when the crossing bells started ringing and a passenger yelled out "A freight train's coming!"

They had been sitting in the bus on the tracks for about 15 minutes after the bus got stuck, Alex, 16, said.

"Then the bells started going, we saw flashing red lights and a bright white light down the end of the track. A passenger called out `A freight train's coming!' and the driver told everybody to get off. It was quite frantic. I just thought, `I have to get off this bus."'

Once off the bus he turned around and saw the bus driver waving his arms to try to flag down the train before getting out of the way.

"Then there was a loud crash and the bus jumped. All I could hear was the scraping of metal. The entire back end of the bus was torn off. You could see the engine. All the windows were shattered; the seat covers were everywhere.

"I thought, `I'm really glad I got off that thing.' I never thought I would be on a bus a train would crash into."

Alex studies photography at Onslow College; he wished he had his camera.

The crash had made him wary of the crossing. He felt it was dangerous and he said he believed something had to be done to make it safer.

"It is not just trains, it is also cars. It is quite unsafe."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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