Taking the inside track
Reporter Anna Williams rides up front with locomotive engineer Murray Hewetson, who tells of his love for the job despite regular near misses with people who race the train.
He can see him on the tracks.
From high up in the cab of a 732-tonne train, locomotive engineer Murray Hewetson spots a man walking his bicycle across the train tracks near the Main St roundabout in Blenheim.
The barrier arms are down and a red glow from the lights flashing at the level crossing warn of the train's imminent arrival.
Murray watches as the man falls over after the wheel of his bike gets wedged in the tracks.
He goes into emergency mode - sand drops from the belly of the train onto the tracks, the power falls to idle, and an alarm goes off at train control in Wellington.
The train sails through the level crossing.
Murray doesn't know what to expect when he looks back in the mirror. He sees the man near the side of the tracks, safe, curled up in a foetal position.
Police are called, but the man and his bike are long gone by the time they arrive.
It was a close call - something Murray prepares for every time he gets in the cab of a train.
He's had 11 collisions during his career - nine with cars at level crossings, one with a motorbike, and one with a pedestrian. He's been really lucky that none were fatal, he says.
On Wednesday morning last week, Murray sits at the control stand in the cab of a 3000 horsepower DXR locomotive, which is coupled with another 3000hp machine.
Together they're 409 metres long and weigh about 800 tonnes, so they wobble around a bit, Murray says.
He switches the front locomotive to idle, so the back train is doing all the work.
At 51, Murray has been driving trains for 33 years. His passion for locomotives was ignited when, as a boy, his grandfather would tell him stories of his own experiences as a locomotive engineer in Greymouth.
Murray has always loved the thought of driving on the rails.
"It's the size and the speed, the scenery - it's better than sitting in an office for eight hours a day."
It was a proud moment three years ago when his son, Todd Hewetson, followed in his footsteps and became the youngest train driver in New Zealand at the age of 20.
"It's surreal to change over with your son in the middle of the night, watching him pull up in this huge train," he says.
It's only 10am, but he's already had three close calls in Marlborough.
A car shot out in front of him at the Blenheim freight yards in Spring Creek; in Seddon a woman cut across the tracks with two toddlers in tow while the red lights were flashing; then in Dashwood, Murray ran over a steer on the tracks.
He blasts the horn twice coming up to the Main St crossing. He doesn't have to by law, but it pays to when you're approaching a crossing or the visibility isn't so good, he says.
He always sounds the horn through Blenheim.
"It's always a mad mile through here," he says.
"You never know what to expect, where people are going to be, if they'll stop. You just don't know what you'll find."
It can be a lonely job, so you have to enjoy your own company, he says.
As he approaches the skate park near Horton St, he hits the horn again. He's had some trouble in that area in the past.
"I had some kids playing chicken on the tracks, to see who would be the last to leave in front of me," he says. "The last one, I almost lost sight of him under the train. I was on the edge of my seat with my feet to the floor like a Flintstone."
Murray, who was born in Rai Valley, has driven trains in Christchurch, Picton, then the West Coast for 17 years, before settling in Blenheim eight years ago.
He now drives freight and passenger trains between Picton and Cheviot, and says after more than three decades up high in his cab, he's as passionate about his job as he was when he first started.
You'd have to be, he says, because driving trains becomes more than just a job - it becomes a part of your lifestyle.
"It's a different outlook on life when you're sitting up in your cab," he says. "I'm lucky to do a job I love. I don't think I'll ever lose my passion for it."
A lot has changed since he started in 1981.
Near misses did happen, but not every day, something Murray puts down to people becoming increasingly impatient.
"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."
Every time he gets in the cab, he knows he will come close to hitting someone, or something.
"It's like anyone turning up to work - you do your job to make a living, but every morning I have to be prepared because there's always a high possibility you will have a collision at a level crossing."
A couple of years ago, Murray was coming up to Kaikoura when some young guys in three cars started racing the train, trying to beat it to the level crossing. Two of the cars crossed over the tracks, but the third one didn't make it.
"I don't think people appreciate that no one ever wins against a train," Murray says.
"After a collision, you're running everything through your head - what could I have done differently, that sort of thing."
Murray's boss, KiwiRail Picton manager Kerry Rogers, looks after 14 drivers in Marlborough.
If there is a collision, Kerry gets called.
He has lost count of the number of the collisions in Marlborough in the five years he has been working at KiwiRail, he says.
Drivers hand in reports after near misses, and in a week Kerry can get up to six or seven.
He knows there are more they don't report, he says.
He's quick to answer why there are so many collisions.
"Just impatient people," he says.
"They see the bells and it's just got to be a race."
When he first started his job, he was sceptical about how many near misses there were.
"You get in the cab the first time and go all the way to Kaikoura, and it's sort of mind-blowing that there are so many stupid people out there."
His role is also to investigate the collision, and make sure his staff were doing everything they were meant to.
"I make sure the driver is OK first. I'll take care of him until I can get another driver down there, then I get on with the measuring and taking the photos and dealing with police."
It's hard on them, he says.
The worst ones are when kids are involved.
"The guys get very shaken up, they need a lot of time," he says.
They get taken back to the KiwiRail base in Picton where they are offered counselling. Then they're sent home for four days to process what happened.
"It's generally a couple of days later they want to talk about it, and you're just there," Kerry says.
Murray says the worst part of any collision was getting out of the cab.
"You see it's going to happen, you know it's coming, then you hear the bang," he says.
"You've got a long, long walk back, and you don't know what you're going to find."
The ripple effect following a collision was amazing, he says.
After any crash, the drivers family, colleagues, police, emergency services, and anyone who attended the collision are affected.
"Everyone has to pick up the pieces, " Murray says.
"I know drivers who have turned back and held hands while the person died in front of them."
If people were prepared to put themselves or a half-tonne car up against an 800-tonne train, best of luck to them, he says. No one wins against a train. "I don't know if it's a size thing, or people don't see you. Maybe we look like we're going slower than what we are."
If the train was travelling at the speed limit of 80kmh, it took about 1km to come to a controlled stop. At 55kmh, it was about 250m.
"At any collision, we close ranks together pretty quickly and look after each other," Murray says.
"If it's a fatality, most of us drop everything, because it could be you next week."
The Marlborough Express