Hazards for trains 'a lot worse', says engineer

Every time Blenheim man Murray Hewetson hops in to the cab of a train, he prepares for the possibility of hitting someone.

The 51-year-old Rai Valley-born locomotive engineer has been driving trains since he was 18.

After working in Christchurch, Picton, then the West Coast for 17 years, he settled in Blenheim eight years ago and drives freight and passenger trains between Picton and Cheviot.

"Every time I get in the cab, I know I'll probably have a near miss," he said. "It's just part of the job - you come into Blenheim and you're resting your hand on the brake the whole time."

He has had 11 collisions during his career - nine with cars at level crossings, one with a motorbike, and one with a pedestrian.

None were fatalities, making him one of the lucky drivers.

Rail Safety Week kicked off yesterday with a strong focus on motorists' behaviour at level crossings. So far this year there have been 15 collisions between trains and vehicles at level crossings in New Zealand, with five fatalities in four separate incidents.

Drivers crossing the tracks when the warning lights were flashing was part of the job these days, Hewetson said.

"Since I've been on the job, it's got a lot worse. People can't wait two to three minutes, they're always in a hurry."

He sees all sorts of reckless behaviour - young people standing on the tracks with their mates playing chicken; cars racing the train and cutting across the tracks in front of it.

A few weeks ago Hewetson hit a trailer on the tracks near the Kinross St crossing. He was heading south about 11pm when he saw it through the darkness about 50 metres away. He went into emergency mode but couldn't stop in time.

"Whoever did it probably thought it was a good joke," he said.

"I hit it and it wedged under the train, but if it took a glancing blow and shot out the side, it could've been a missile and hit a pedestrian or another car."

The worst part of any collision was getting out of the cab, he said.

"You see it's going to happen, you know it's coming, then you hear the bang," he said. "You've got a long, long walk back, and you don't know what you're going to find."

People who risked their lives and the lives of others when they crossed as a train was coming were idiots, he said.

"Why put yourself in that position for the sake of three minutes?" he said. "It still doesn't make any sense to me after 33 years."

The Marlborough Express