Train driver's 'heart in mouth'

NATASHA THYNE
Last updated 05:00 15/08/2014
Grant Palmer
MYTCHALL BRANSGROVE / Fairfax NZ
ON TRACK: Local freight train driver Grant Palmer has been doing the job for 38 years and has experienced a number of near collisions during that time.

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Timaru freight train driver Grant Palmer has not let his experience in a fatality involving a pedestrian put him off driving.

Palmer has been a train driver for 38 years, during which time he has experienced several close calls with both cars and pedestrians.

During national railway safety week this week, Kiwirail has focused on the "forgotten victims" of collisions; the drivers.

The fatal collision Palmer experienced happened in 1990 when a man was walking along the tracks. There were three drivers in the shunt car at the time, all of whom had to carry on working and finish the shift after the incident.

Now, if train drivers are involved in a fatality there is a mandatory three-day leave period.

Palmer said when a near hit seems possible there is a funny feeling where "your heart goes up to your mouth", but such incidents hadn't affected him as much as other drivers.

"I've never felt it too hard myself . . . some people have left, it's not a nice feeling."

Palmer said months can go by without any problems and then there could be three or four near hits in one day.

"They come and go, I've had some really close ones. In some of them both of us are on the crossing at the same time."

His message to people is to not treat railway tracks as footpaths.

In the case of the fatal he was involved in, a footpath was 10 metres away from the tracks.

"But he decided to use a railway track instead and as a result he's dead."

Although there are emergency breaks, Palmer said in a close call the freight trains, with a front car which weighs more than 100 tonnes, will not stop in time.

He said the whistle was the best defence to get people moving faster as they may not have heard the train coming.

Near hits were also caused when car drivers see the lights going but still think the train is a long way away.

Since January 2013, there has been one train and vehicle collision on a public crossing in the Timaru District, occurring at the Heaton St level crossing in January 2014. No one was injured.

There have also been 15 near collisions in the Timaru District during that time.

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- The Timaru Herald

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