Auckland rail crossing death raises questions over safety

One of Auckland's major level crossings where a man was killed yesterday had just re-opened after a major rebuild.

A man in his early sixties was hit by the second of two opposite direction trains using the barrier-controlled road, rail and pedestrian crossing on Morningside Dr at about 6.50pm.

The fatality comes just short of two years after a woman using a wheelchair was hit by a train at the same crossing. She survived and KiwiRail accept that the incident, which saw her trapped in a poorly maintained crossing, was their fault.

Over the holidays all the tracks crossing Morningside were lifted off and the area was completely rebuilt.

Authorities are expected to release the dead man's name and details of the accident later today.

But it is raising safety questions around Auckland's 48 level crossings just as the city's electric train service markedly increases the volume of trains, including on the Western Line where yesterday's accident occurred.

A strong advocate of getting rid of level crossings, Graeme Easte of the Albert-Eden Local Board, said Morningside is one of the worst level crossings in Auckland.

A long term city plan existed showing $240 million in expenditure on level crossing removal but there was no cash committed to it and no timetable.

"The programme is no money, no programme and occasional tragedies," he said.

Morningside's current off-peak frequency was four trains per hour in both directions. It is about to go to 12 trains an hour.

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"People and cars do not need to be on the tracks," he said.

At Morningside the trains are currently diesel but will be electric next year and people crossing may not hear them, especially in an era of headphones.

Easte said at the very least authorities could put warning lights into the ground on the pathway in the same way as is used experimentally on some pedestrian crossings in the city. 

An estimated $10 million programme to get a bridge across is not even planned and Easte is being denied access to an Auckland Transport report detailing ways of dealing with level crossings.

Many would need to be closed off and others bridged despite local objections.

"You cannot hide a $5 million bridge in the middle of suburbia."

Earlier KiwiRail spokeswoman Jenni Austin said the crossing was very busy but it had every safety measure possible, including flashing lights, half-barrier arms and a pedestrian maze.

There were two trains at the crossing at the time of the incident, she said. 

"One passed through and it appears the second train has hit the person."

On February 25, 2013, a 22-year-old woman, who has never been named, was hit by a train at the same crossing, suffering horrific injuries. 

She was in a wheelchair.

KiwiRail in a report into that accident accepted that the crossing was in a "degraded condition".

"We take our responsibility for meeting our own safety standards seriously and are very disappointed and apologetic for our failure in this instance," said KiwiRail chairman John Spencer.

The report found that the width and depth of the flange gap, the uneven surface of the crossing and the angle of the crossing at Morningside Drive were contributing factors to the accident.

"Despite the crossing being fully rebuilt in mid-2011, its condition had deteriorated rapidly mostly due to the combined impact of stormwater flooding and a broken water pipe beneath it," Spencer said.

He said level crossings it was critical that KiwiRail, relevant roading authorities and other agencies work closely together to ensure appropriate solutions and processes are in place to best manage the public risks around New Zealand's 4,000km long national rail network.

Only one of Auckland's 48 level crossings is targeted for closure according to Auckland Transport (AT). It is one of the least busy from a car and pedestrian point-of-view but crucial to the rail network.

The railway level crossing connecting Sarawia Street and Laxon Terrace in Newmarket is to be bridged at an estimated cost of $5.72 million.

"The Newmarket level crossing is the busiest and most complex in New Zealand in terms of rail movements, and is a major contributor to rail service disruptions," AT says.

"The main reason AT will close the crossing is to allow improvements to rail frequency to take advantage of the more efficient electric trains to be introduced over the next few years."

Sarawia Street is the only level crossing between Britomart and the Newmarket Junction.

 - Stuff

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