Rail Safety Week: Train driver recounts close calls at level crossings

Freight train driver Liz Cooper has learned to pick which drivers will try to play chicken with her at level crossings.

“They’ll come flying into a crossing, half-pie hesitate and then just shoot across in front of you.” Some even speed up as they drive alongside, trying to race her to the crossing.

She’ll often mutter “Don’t do it, don’t go” as they approach, and ease on the brakes, but there’s not much else she can do to stop them getting hit by her 2000-tonne freight train.

The worst is when they hoon across the tracks with children in the car.

“That’s what upsets me the most. The kids don’t have a choice.”

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Cooper’s been lucky in her three years on the job. The Te Puke locomotive engineer hasn’t hit anyone, though she’s had many near-misses, and had a big fright recently when she hit an empty farm bike that was sitting on the tracks in the middle of the night.

And she’s heard stories of traumatised drivers who have been unable to act in time to stop a tragedy.

Many of them have been in rural areas. A new study out today to start Rail Safety Week found more than three-quarters of all serious train collisions with vehicles are in rural areas or provincial towns.

But the numbers also show things are improving – there’s been a more than 40 per cent drop in near-misses and collisions in the past four years.

In the year to June 30 there were 31 collisions and 227 near-misses with trains nationwide. The same period to June 2018 saw 54 collisions and 405 near-misses.

Farmers and rural workers were over-represented in collisions causing serious injury or death. Cooper blames impatience and complacency, as people drive the same road every day and are “going through the motions”.

Some people panic and brake in the middle of the tracks, then reverse or shoot forward as they realise they’ve misjudged the train. That’s fine until somebody is behind them – or there’s a dangerous intersection on the other side.

“I had an incident where a guy went to race across in front of me – he beat me but then he didn’t take the corner, so he crashed. I was just like man, what an egg. All he had to do was wait. I don’t know what could be so important that you had to risk your life.”

‘Man, what an egg. All he had to do was wait. I don’t know what could be so important that you had to risk your life

Cooper often sees people risking their lives by walking along the tracks or looking at their phones as they drive toward a level crossing.

Others deliberately try to race her. There’s not much Cooper can do about them.

“I don’t know if they think playing chicken with a train is a fun thing.”

She believes people don’t realise how fast trains are going – usually betweeen 70-80km/h. If they chance it, she’ll lean on the horn, hoping to make them think twice next time.

“You get the odd person pull the fingers because you’ve given them a fright. Well okay, I’d rather you pull the fingers at me than me hit you.”

As an animal lover Cooper’s also grateful she hasn’t hit any livestock – there were 65 such collisions in the 12 months to June. Just last weekend, a freight train hit a herd of cattle south of Ōtorohanga, killing at least 30.

Such crashes are traumatic for the driver and farmer, with many cattle having to be euthanised, Cooper said. There are known hotspots where cattle get on the tracks – often a farmer knows their fencing is poor but hasn’t got around to fixing it.

Farmers and rural workers will be the target of early morning radio ads this week, aiming to give them a “literal wake-up call” about train safety, KiwiRail chief executive Greg Miller said.

“We are seeing at least one vehicle collision on train lines around New Zealand every
three weeks, and a near-miss every few days.

“Tragically, in the past 10 years 163 people have died on the rail network, 54 of those at
level crossings. We don’t want to see another life lost.”

Staying safe around trains

• Trains can come from either direction at any time.

• Obey warning signs and look both ways carefully.

• Lights or bells mean there’s a train coming – by law, you can’t cross.

• Trains can be quiet, and faster than you think. They are heavy and can’t stop quickly.

• Make sure there’s enough space on the other side for your vehicle before crossing.

• If you’re on foot, only cross at a formed level crossing or an over/underpass.

• Take headphones off, stop and look both ways.

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