A teenage driver slammed on his brakes moments before colliding with a commuter train, but was too late to save his passenger.
Grace Ellen Diedrichs, 15, from Carterton, died when the force of the collision flung her 20 metres from the crumpled ute yesterday morning.
It is the second death at the uncontrolled rail crossing in Wiltons Rd, between Carterton and Masterton, and Carterton Mayor Ron Mark said it raised serious questions about safety at the crossing.
"When you start to get multiple fatalities you start to think is this a black spot?"
Jonathan Painter, 17, of Pahiatua, was driving a Mitsubishi ute in Wiltons Rd at 8.10am yesterday. At the same time, the 7.50am train from Masterton to Wellington was travelling southbound at about 100kmh.
The ute struck the train, puncturing a fuel tank. The impact crushed the vehicle's bonnet and passenger side, sending it spinning off the road. Grace was flung from the ute while Jonathan, who remained in the vehicle, suffered head injuries. Last night he was in a serious condition in Masterton Hospital.
Senior Sergeant Carolyn Watson, of Masterton police, said short skid marks on the road indicated the driver had tried to brake before colliding with the train. "I don't know why he didn't see it till then," she said.
Jonathan works as an apprentice butcher for his step-father, Wayne Roache, at Mangatainoka Meats.
Mr Roache and Jonathan's mother, Sheree Painter, were with him at Masterton Hospital yesterday. Mr Roache said Jonathan appeared to be "OK" but declined to comment further. "We are all pretty emotionally strained at the moment."
Senior Sergeant Watson said the train driver was "extremely shaken" but it appeared none of the passengers were injured. Some who spoke to The Dominion Post said they felt nothing when the vehicle hit the train.
Sergey Stepanov, who was part of a Russian Rotary group visiting Masterton, said the train came to a slow stop and he realised there had been an accident only after being told by train staff.
"There didn't seem to be any damage to the train," he said.
The Wiltons Rd rail crossing was the scene of a similar fatality in 2002 when Daniel Robert Quin died when his ute drove into a train.
Mr Mark said there were many uncontrolled crossings in Wairarapa and people needed to take care while crossing. However, two fatalities in similar circumstances meant the crossing may need to be upgraded with barriers or lights.
"If there has been more than one fatality, that is of real concern."
Megan Drayton, who manages the railway safety-focused Chris Cairns Foundation, said Grace's death was a devastating reminder of the need to take extra care at railway crossings.
But while barriers or lights might help, education was more important, she said. Nearly half of all train and vehicle collisions happened at crossings with barriers or lights. "Upgrading the crossing is not the only solution to improving safety."
A KiwiRail spokeswoman said the fatality would be assessed and the Wiltons Rd crossing could be prioritised for an upgrade. The decision would take into account the accidents, traffic volumes and any hazards, such as poor visibility.
The death is one of two fatalities on train tracks during the weekend, with Sheena Louise Wright, 41, of Christchurch, dying early on Saturday when she was hit by a train in Hornby.
In the past 12 months, at least seven people have died at railway crossings and another 13 have been injured. Each year there is an average of 24 collisions between trains and motor vehicles at crossings. Most happen because the vehicle driver has not seen the train or believed they could beat it over the crossing.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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