Train driver's perspective on level crossing accidents
The "level crossing" is 100 metres away.
The emergency brakes hiss and locomotive DXC5172, bustling towards Mataura, begins its deceleration.
The powerful 103-tonne engine and the wagons behind it drift, slide and agonisingly grind to a halt.
But not before we've glided past the "level crossing" and a further 250m down the track.
"You can't do anything but sit back and wait to hit something. I imagine it's a bit like riding a curling stone," veteran KiwiRail locomotive engineer Lawrie Knipe says from the driver's seat.
The "level crossing" in this scenario as Knipe demonstrates what it's like to be in control of a big loco is adjacent to a row of pine trees in a Southland field off to side of the tracks on the Invercargill to Mataura run.
Knipe knows first-hand how a massive force can't "stop on a sixpence".
Fifteen years ago his goods train couldn't stop in time when an Invercargill man drove through the barriers and stopped on the track at the Elles Rd level crossing.
"I was coming in on a train and the barrier arms were down and the next thing here's this car that has driven into the arms and stopped on the tracks," he recalls as we sit motionless 350 metres down the track from where he first hit the brakes.
"Just like this, I hit the brakes. He was in one of those Fiat Unos and it just kept getting closer. I hit the car and it went up into the air."
The 86-year-old man died in hospital.
Knipe said it took him a long time to get over the incident.
"But it never goes away."
Other drivers carry a burden that should not be theirs. "I know of drivers who have had to get out of their engines and face mutilated bodies or look for body parts," he reflects.
Unfortunately and bewilderingly, motorists and pedestrians continue to roll the dice with approaching trains.
People become oblivious to train crossings and train movements, Knipe says as he blows the whistle where road meets track.
"One of the problems at crossings is people are focusing on what's going on ahead. The railway crossing may be 100m from a main road intersection so they focus on intersection, not the crossing and are blind to the approaching train."
On his Invercargill to Mataura run, schoolkids take shortcuts across the train line, and skateboarders decide riding the tracks is fun. "It only takes one of them to slip or fall over each and they are gone."
Train drivers have to focus on their job but they also have to anticipate the actions of motorists, he says.
"We are trying to read the motorists wherever possible."
"You wouldn't drive through a give way or a compulsory stop sign. So why would you drive straight across a railway crossing?"
It's been a smooth journey and locomotive DXC5172 hauling milk powder, cheese, fibreboard and meat is nearing Mataura.
The whistle blows as a crossing comes into view. A ute is flying along the muddy road and isn't slowing down. Knipe blows the whistle again.
My stomach sinks and my heart goes into my mouth. The ute pulls up and Knipe gives me a wry smile.
"Don't worry, I still get that feeling," he reassures me.
"I've come to level crossings and can see the smoke coming from the tyres of the cars and you are looking down into the driver's eyes as you roll past."
Before every trip, trains are checked and on the journey any malfunctioning barriers or lights are reported. A track warrant – the right to occupy the line – is issued to the driver. Every 60 seconds once rolling, the driver has to respond to a flashing light. No response after a certain amount of time results in the emergency brakes being remotely applied. A driver who goes over the bounds of his warrant, speeds or fails an alcohol or drug test faces disciplinary measures. Any near-miss, activation of the emergency brakes or collision is closely scrutinised.
RAIL CROSSING 'HOT SPOTS'
Two main railway crossings in the south have been identified as critical hot spots by train drivers.
Motorists appear to display the worst disregard for safety at the Oporo Flat Rd crossing, near Wallacetown, and at the Bridge St crossing in Mataura.
TrackSafe manager Megan Drayton said they gathered data from train drivers nationally to get their impressions of motorists' behaviour at crossings.
The two southern crossings were clearly identified as where motorists ignored give-way signs, sped over crossings, or did not give themselves enough room when crossing.
Drayton said their behaviour matched that found nationwide.
A crossing near Owaka also caused concern as motorists tried to race the lights.
While the near-collision rate was dropping in the southern region, which extends from Christchurch south, Southland has had a bad record.
In 2008, level crossings in Southland were rated as some of the worst in the country.
Ontrack rated the crossings from 1 to 5 (with 5 being the worst) relating to the number of collisions in proportion to the number of crossings.
The Southland district had a rating of 1, while Invercargill city, with 33 crossings, had a rating of 5.
Fatal accidents have been recorded in 1999 near Elles Rd, Invercargill, in 2000 near Edendale, in 2002 near Awarua and in 2005 near Morton Mains.
In 2011 KiwiRail upgraded the crossing at Fox St, Invercargill, with flashing lights and bell alarms to replace give-way signs.
Drayton said motorists needed to be educated to be safe near crossings.
As part of Rail Safety Week, police have been patrolling railway crossings in the south.
"Trains are heavy and take a very long time to stop. Research has shown that many people cannot accurately gauge how fast they are travelling," she said.
The Southland Times