Death haunts our nation's rail lines video


Various train drivers discuss the increase of near misses on the tracks as people are distracted by things such as headphones and aren't paying attention.

​Yolanda Kruger was all alone in her cabin when she spotted him. Beanie on, earbuds too, near Mt Eden station at a crossing standing right in the middle of her tracks waiting for another train to pass on the opposite track. She doesn't remember his face or much about what he looked like, she tries not to, because in 15 seconds his life would, for all intents and purposes, be over.

Kruger was less than a year in the job.

Collisions between trains and people have risen four-fold between 2010 and 2017, but those between trains and cars have decreased by 45 per cent in the same period. Train accidents, an unfortunate feature of rail systems around the world since their invention, are changing with the times. Now it is no longer the archetypal car on the train tracks at the wrong time that is most at risk but the podcast-listening pedestrian.

Yolanda Kruger is one of only a handful of female train drivers that cross the country back and forth daily.

Yolanda Kruger is one of only a handful of female train drivers that cross the country back and forth daily.

After an accident, colleagues call you up, Kruger says, even if they don't personally know you very well because everyone's been through it before. Counselling and time-off are not an option, it's mandatory, three days off at a minimum. Every train driver is affected by death, they can imagine themselves in that position and are concerned about how you're doing. Nobody wants you to return to work too soon.

Trains running again after body found on tracks at south Auckland station
Police release name of fatal Whakatane train crash
Woman suffers leg injury after being hit by train at Glen Innes station

Kruger got off lighter than most, she couldn't bring herself to get out and look at the body, so she doesn't have an image in her head of the carnage a freight train can wreak on flesh and bone. 

Jeffrey Hawkes at the site of the accident that cost him his leg fifteen years ago.

Jeffrey Hawkes at the site of the accident that cost him his leg fifteen years ago.

"Some people are so shocked by it they never drive trains again."

The hardest part of the whole experience was telling her parents what had happened. Her family left South Africa for the same reason most do, crime and death, the prospect of which hanged over her head even when she was inside her air-conditioned office in Johannesburg working as a legal secretary. 

Her father placed her on her current path, after circling a job ad for the role of a train conductor on a passenger train one day after Kruger had exhausted all avenues to find work as a legal secretary in New Zealand. 

Yolanda Kruger said that all train drivers fear hitting people on the tracks and that "some people are so shocked by it ...

Yolanda Kruger said that all train drivers fear hitting people on the tracks and that "some people are so shocked by it they never drive trains again".

She didn't need any New Zealand experience to become a train conductor like she would have as a legal secretary. She didn't even need to have travelled on a train, which was a good thing because she had only ever ridden on one twice in South Africa. In her own words she "had nothing to do with them". All she needed for what would be her first job in New Zealand was a willingness to placate irate customers and wear a smile in the face of their criticism. 

Ad Feedback

Kruger says she enjoyed the job and the customers, with a laugh after she talks about the latter that might seem to indicate otherwise. She says her decision to become a train driver was about moving on to the next step but admits the solitude, and opportunity to remove herself from the immediate demands of commuters appealed to her. 

A train driving job promised that, just her, the scenery and the tracks.

Jeffrey Hawkes believes you never really recover from a major accident, especially when it involved a train slamming ...

Jeffrey Hawkes believes you never really recover from a major accident, especially when it involved a train slamming into your vehicle.

She was the only woman in her class of four. Now that she is all trained up she is the only female train driver in Auckland and one of eight across the country, out of a nationwide pool of 385 train drivers.

"I love working with the guys, there's no office gossip and stuff going around, but sometimes they can be hard work, but generally I enjoy working with them.

Kruger admits there were issues at the start with older men who doubted her ability with engines almost as soon as they saw her. 


Jeffrey Hawkes survived a collision with a train but says you never fully recover.

"I just had to keep smiling and pretend, yeah, I'm good!"

Those same men were the ones who supported her through the ordeal of the accident. In the hours afterwards, the victim was rushed to hospital and put on life support while her boss gave her a ride home, she poured herself some tea, and sat there, processing what had just happened and waited till she found a way of telling her parents. 

In the end, she settled for printing out a news story on the accident for them. After they had read it she simply told them, "that was me". 

Rail Safety Week starts on Monday and KiwiRail is drawing attention to an increase in the number of pedestrians nationwide who were hit by a train and died. But the number of fatalities doesn't tell the whole story as the number of near-misses recorded by KiwiRail have seen an even greater jump. 

Part of this is due to better logging of such incidents by KiwiRail, but a good percentage of it are people who simply appear distracted and almost step into the path of a train.

The vast majority of such near-misses are in the metropolitan centres of Auckland and Wellington, with Auckland taking the lions share of 64 out of 105 near-misses nationwide.

According to Dave Gordon, general manager asset and investment at KiwiRail, it is hard to pin down why certain spots see more deaths than others, other than to say that the risk is much higher in urban areas. KiwiRail has its own ranking of track spots by risk, but it doesn't correlate with crossings most people think of as dangerous for pedestrians, like Auckland's much-criticised Morningside station.

"Morningside, it is unusual, but it seems to have attracted incidents which seem to be disproportionate to the objective standard of risk and I don't really understand why."

"There have been fatalities there, absolutely."

Auckland Transport says it has upgraded seven crossings for pedestrians in the last five years and had plans to close four and upgrade 13 more of them in an attempt to improve pedestrian safety, but Gordon says the solution is not to look at the crossings but the behaviour that causes the accidents at them.

Kruger drives her train through metropolitan Auckland five days a week and admits she breathes a sigh of relief when she passes Papakura on her way out of the city on her regular route transporting freight from Auckland to Hamilton. It's one of the reasons why she prefers to drive trains alone; passengers are too much of a distraction. 

She tries to focus on every potential obstacle, and in Auckland, there are a lot of them. She describes her body tensing up as she approaches a passenger platform where people routinely try to touch trains as they pass through, and the children who jump in the direction of them before stopping themselves a few centimetres short as the locomotive streaks past. 

"Sometimes you just want to stop the train, get out and shake people by the shoulders and say 'do you realise what you just did there?"

Kruger has never found out who the person involved in the accident at Mt Eden station was. But she admits that in the week he was on life support she rang up the hospital to ask about his status.

"It wasn't my fault, but it's still somebody's child or parent, every time I go over the same crossing I think about it, I'll always remember it.

"It's scary out there."


For Jeffrey Hawkes that week will always remind him of band practice fifteen years ago. He was driving home from a jamming session with his bandmates in Taupiri, and he was in his 1987 Mazda Familia on State Highway 1 when he lost traction taking a turn, his car slipped off the road plunging five metres onto a railway track at around 1 am in the morning.

He took his keys out of the ignition, removed his seat belt and opened his car door. His last memory before everything went black was trying to get out of the car and being held back by something.

Hawkes woke up to find his mother and sister sitting opposite him and his arm in a cast. He was lucid enough to realise that the cast and the white walls meant he must be in a hospital, his first words were: "clearly I need to find somewhere better to park my car".

In the ensuing Police investigation, Hawkes' accident was recorded as "man vs. train, multiple trauma", and as details emerged over the next week, he found out his foot had somehow ended up stuck in the footwall of his Mazda while a freight train ploughed through his vehicle.

His body was found 10m away from the train, and the accident left him with a brain injury, mallet fingers, and multiple broken bones. Chunks of skin had to be removed from his elbow, and when he finally had access to a mirror, it was impossible to ignore the "freight-train sized bump" on his head.

More importantly for his future aspirations, Hawkes lost his lower leg and would have to walk with a rubber foot for the rest of his life.

He was eventually discharged from hospital after two months and found parts of his old life slowly slipping away. He had been studying towards a degree in horticulture, but the mobility required meant that was never an option. His brain injury had left him easily fatigued which also ruled out other jobs.

"You never really fully recover."

Hawkes is an optimist and says the accident didn't narrow his prospects, but widened them, giving him an ability to see the bigger picture when it comes to life while others find themselves stressing over the minutiae of day-to-day life.

"I was never big on running anyway, and you can still run with a rubber leg you know."

The statistics around train accidents show those involving cars and light vehicles are on the decline.

Dave Gordon of KiwiRail suspects this is likely due to improved safety measures at crossings and a greater awareness amongst the general population. 

Even though accidents involving cars are on the decrease, Gordon still thinks they remain a major danger.

"Every week we fix a barrier somewhere, which means someone, somewhere, has taken a risk."

Hawkes says he wouldn't be able to live without music but would never wear headphones while walking or driving because they cut you off from the world around you. 

"While it might be fun to listen to music, there's a time and a place, there's no point having one of your senses cut out just because you like listening to Madonna or whatever,

Every time Hawkes finds himself the first car in line at a crossing he feels a shiver go through his spine as a long freight train passes through.

"It's pretty unnerving to think I was attacked by one of those, and survived."

 - Sunday Star Times


Ad Feedback
special offers

Landslide could create dam

Auckland Council's Chelsea Estate Heritage stormwater project map, which began in August 2017.

Birkenhead slip could create havoc for the Chelsea Heritage Park below it

DIY house sales drop in Auckland

Private House sales are still an option in a changing real estate market.

Home owners are returning to real estate agents in a tougher Auckland housing market.

Waiheke fireworks display planned

November 4 is the date set for the annual public fireworks display at Waiheke Dirt Track at Rangihoua.

Fireworks will light the sky on Waiheke Island at a public display on November 4.

Police tackle LGBT discrimination

Constable Nick Preston walked Auckland Pride Parade 2017 hand in hand with Queen La Quisha, left, and Ima Ballsdrop, right.

The thin blue line will get a splash of rainbow, if plans to introduce compulsory LGBT education for recruits goes ahead.


Biggest economic shift since '84 video

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, after announcing Labour would form a government with NZ First.

OPINION: There will be a sea change to the government's role in the economy starting with a big housing intervention.

Labour's top priorities

Prime Minister elect Jacinda Ardern at her media conference after it was announced Winston Peters was forming a  ...

What are Labour's top priorities now they're in power? And who will make the magic happen?

Greens promised cannabis poll video

Green Party leader James Shaw speaks to media after the announcement of a Labour-NZ First coalition government.

NZ First isn't the only party that held Labour's feet to the fire during coalition talks, internal party email shows.

Challenging year for Napier

Napier has work to do on a number of unfinished projects.

Napier has work to do on a number of projects after a tumultuous year at council HQ.


No longer a loos-loos situation

Neighbours are satisfied with the conditions of the resource consent, which means Hire King will have to build fencing ...

It's win-win for central city businesses after a portaloo lot that drew ire is granted consent.

Cops freeze gang assets

Armed police raided the Christchurch Head Hunters' pad on Vickerys Rd early on Friday morning.

Operation targeting the Head Hunters' Christchurch pad believed to be linked to major police investigation.

Racial abuse hurled at young worker

Police are investigating a racially charged incident at a Dunedin supermarket.

Teen supermarket worker called "a dumb n....." after refusing to sell trio alcohol without ID.

House fire puts woman in hospital

A house on Rogers St in Sydenham, Christchurch became engulfed in flames early on Friday morning.

City fire crews were called to separate blazes at a house and a factory overnight.


Girl from Morrinsville our next PM

Jacinda Ardern on the campaign trail.

The girl from Morrinsville, who once worked at the local chippie, will be our second youngest PM.

Ardern at the helm

Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern will be the country's new prime minister.

Jacinda Ardern will become prime minister as the Labour Party regains power after nine years in the cold.

Masseur  denies touch allegations

Keith Dobson, 53, faces 11 charges of indecent assault on six female former clients.

"I would never do that," he told the court.

Retired farmer sailing away

Roy Woolerton, 80, spent 16 years building his catamaran, but it's now in the water at Westhaven Marina in Auckland.

The hand-built 14.5m offshore cruising cat has two engines and four double berths


Coalition reaction

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters

"It's the start of a distinguished political career for Jacinda Ardern," says Corie Haddock.

Action aplenty on offer

David Bruce is looking forward to the Scale Ship's Regatta in Hāwera this weekend.

 The weather isn't looking too bad and there's a heap of things to do and see over the weekend.

'The colony's dullest hole'

Len Lye Centre facade and White Hart hotel

Slagging off provincial small town New Zealand is fraught with danger.

Programme's results video

Ethan Penny ,14, has finished the  Whānau Pakari programme, but enjoys the exercise part so much he still joins in.

Obese kids and teens were faster, healthier and happier overall if they stuck to the programme.


Finding freedom video

Four-year-old Fowya Julsalam is getting to grips with his new life in New Zealand.

He was thrown into jail and beaten. Now, Musti Rahman and his family are free.

Karting kid to F1

rendon Hartley gets fitted into his new car ahead of the United States Grand Prix.

Brendon Hartley has 21 years of motorsport experience to draw on in the F1.

Welcome to Koputaroa

Signs of the country life are evident at Koputaroa.

WELCOME TO TOWN: Twinkies and Zap flavoured milk are fond childhood memories.

Long flight home

Godwits are returning from their northern hemisphere habitats.

Warm welcome for Foxton Estuary birds returning from northern hemisphere summer.


Dam consultation plan gets nod


Tasman district councillor Dana Wensley.

It's time for the public to have a say on the proposed Waimea dam.

Military manoeuvres

Military light operational vehicles involved in Exercise Southern Katipo 2017 roll off the HMNZS Canterbury at Port Nelson.

 Nelson gets a glimpse of the Southern Katipo military exercise as soldiers and supplies roll out of Port Nelson.

Fruit jobs in balance

T&G Foods plant in Nayland Rd, Nelson will either be sold, consolidated or shut.

Apple processing plant in Nelson faces closure amid dropping volumes of juice fruit.

Charge follows scare

A policeman at the Stoke Railway Reserve looks for a man who was allegedly seen with a knife in the area.

Police charge teen with possession of an offensive weapon after knife scare in Stoke.


Doggie Gold Card with benefits

Winston Peters may leave a political legacy with pooches at Marlborough if a doggie Gold Card goes ahead.

Winston Peters may unwittingly leave a political legacy at Marlborough as councillors consider a Gold Card for dogs.

Bar's new lease of life

Paddy Barry's Irish Bar, on Scott St, closed in 2017.

The owner of the Yard Bar and Cartel is seemingly looking to open a third.

The rise and fall of a highway

NCTIR project manager Zach Knutson at a culvert at the south end of the Pines.

Road workers cutting a swathe through the quake damage find themselves surrounded by walls of dirt and crumbling asphalt.

The cats nobody wants

Manager, Kaycee Polkinghorne (pictured) said sending the cats to Wellington gave them a better chance of adoption.

Thirteen cats took an early morning flight to Wellington on Saturday hoping for a fresh start.

South Canterbury

When Taiyo met Tom video

Japanese student Taiyo Watanabe finally met his hero gold medal winning shot put world champion Tom Walsh in Timaru on ...

Aspiring Japanese shot putter surprised by unexpected meet and greet with hero Tom Walsh.

'Wonderful news' video

Labour MP Jo Luxton

"So many people in NZ need this," Rangitata-based Labour MP says

Testing criticised

Consumer NZ's advice to people who burned firewood was to make sure the wood was well-seasoned.

Consumer NZ says low-emission woodburners could still cause significant pollution.

$820k revamp for hospital

Henderson Building foreman Simon Bartlett carrying out construction at the Bidwill Trust Hospital.

Bidwill Hospital's nine surgeons will be based on site once upgrade is complete in June.


Racial abuse hurled at worker

Police are investigating a racially charged incident at a Dunedin supermarket.

A teenage Dunedin supermarket worker was called "a dumb n....." after refusing to sell the pair alcohol without photo ID.

ORC boss loses job

Peter Bodeker's contract as the Otago Regional Council's chief executive will not be renewed.

The Otago Regional Council's chief executive is out of a job after the council decided not to renew his contract.

Racing boss turns to golf tourism

Owner of Highlands Motorsport Park and Hampton Downs, Tony Quinn.

Highlands Motorsport Park boss Tony Quinn wants to build a golf course and residential development at the back of his racetrack.

Pilot Graeme Frew confirms Full Noise for Wanaka

Reno rookie of the year, Graeme Frew.

Record-breaking rookie Reno racer Graeme Frew to bring V-12 powered Yak-3 aircraft to Wanaka's airshow.


Ardern: 'Honour and privilege'

Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern will be the country's new prime minister.

Jacinda Ardern will become prime minister as the Labour Party regains power after nine years in the cold.

Tania needs new liver

James Hargest College science teacher Tania Lineham is in need of her second liver transplant, her first was in 1995.

An award-winning science teacher is in urgent need of a second liver transplant.

Woman steals $100k

Court gavel.

A Southland woman stole more than $100,000 from her employer because she wanted to start her own business.

Manapouri art on display

Manapouri Art Group treasurer Kathy Singleton with some of her work.

Light and dark is the theme of the Manapouri Art Group's 13th labour weekend exhibition.

Ad Feedback