Death haunts our nation's rail lines
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.
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.
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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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
'YOU NEVER REALLY FULLY RECOVER'
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