By SCOTT MacLEOD
Twenty-one people were injured and 10 cattle shot dead after a passenger train thumped into a truck yesterday at a remote South Canterbury level crossing.
The spectacular smash happened at 10.55 am when the Southerner train hit the trailer of a Transport Waimate stock truck at Makikihi Beach Rd, 30km south of Timaru.
It was the latest in a string of accidents for Tranz Rail, and immediately sparked four more investigations into the railway company.
The Southerner was carrying 62 passengers and three crew on its daily run from Christchurch to Invercargill when it collided with the truck's trailer, sending 13 cattle flying.
The impact spun the locomotive 180 degrees so it was facing backwards. The first carriage twisted sideways and the second carriage was also derailed.
The engine and carriages squealed 100m past the smash site, ripping up tracks and sleepers as they went.
One passenger recalled billowing clouds of dust and a deafening screeching noise as her carriage tore open like a tin can.
Another passenger took video pictures showing scenes of shock and chaos inside the carriage.
Ambulances, fire trucks and helicopters converged on the site and the injured were whisked to nearby Makikihi School hall or to hospitals in Timaru and Oamaru.
Two people initially said to be seriously hurt were later reported to be in a stable condition.
Tranz Rail spokeswoman Nicola McFaull said she did not know the Southerner's impact speed, but trains averaged 80 km/h.
"That's irrelevant anyway," she said. "The accident happened because the truck drove through the level crossing. A train is very heavy and takes up to a kilometre to stop, so all our driver could do was toot."
But Transport Waimate manager Barry Sadler said visibility was poor and the train did not indicate its presence. His brother was only 20m behind in a ute, and could not see the smash.
"We're trying to get more details, but we have witnesses saying that the train driver did not toot," Mr Sadler said. "The trailer was written off and we arranged to have stock put down with a vet present."
Police and the Transport Accident Investigation Commission rushed staff to the scene.
The crossing did not have barriers, bells or lights, but was signposted.
New Zealand's 3900km rail network has 735 uncontrolled crossings.
Tranz Rail hoped to reopen the railway line by this morning, but will have to carry the Southerner's southbound passengers in buses until the train is fixed.
Yesterday's smash came 11 days after a Tranz Rail train with 35 passengers on board smashed into another engine in Auckland.
Three weeks earlier, on December 8, two freight trains collided near Christchurch.
The accident commission will take another six months to investigate those smashes, which came after a ministerial inquiry found that Tranz Rail's death rate of five workers in two years was bad by international standards.
The Land Transport Safety Authority says three people were killed and 10 injured last year in 11 collisions between trains and vehicles.
The Southerner train was also involved in one of those three fatalities, when it collided with a ute near Edendale, 53km north of Invercargill, last July, instantly killing the woman driver.
A further four people were killed north of Oamaru in November 1996 when the Southerner hit their car on an uncontrolled crossing, cutting it in two.
Their deaths caused the toll to swell to 17 that year - one fewer than the number killed in 1993.
In August 1993, New Zealand cricket player Chris Cairns' only sister, Louise, and two female passengers on the Southerner died when a truck ploughed into the side of the train at a level crossing in Rolleston, south of Christchurch.