Only courage and quick-thinking avoided a tragedy on an Auckland rail crossing this week when a disabled woman's wheelchair got jammed in the tracks. Two people on the pedestrian crossing at the same time could not free her before a freight train came around the corner and the best they could do was push her chair over so that the train would not hit her. They undoubtedly saved her but the incident has underlined another expense Auckland will face as it upgrades its railways for commuter services.
The crossing at Morningside where the accident occurred was upgraded as recently as 2011 when the station had to cater for Rugby World Cup crowds at nearby Eden Park. But clearly it was not upgraded enough. Level crossings will always present possible hazards to pedestrians and cars, and Auckland's railways have 36 of them.
They are not only a hazard to road and foot traffic. They restrict the speed the trains can travel, and speed is essential if a commuter rail service is to attract enough patronage to make it worthwhile.
The Auckland Council's case for a central city rail circuit can leave the impression that this short, expensive underground link is the last piece of the jigsaw that would "unlock" the full potential of existing lines to carry fast, frequent services. Councils said the same thing of the central station's relocation to Britomart and electrification of the lines.
These and more were essential but not sufficient for a successful urban rail system and the central loop would not be sufficient either. The next call is likely to be for complete "grade separation" of rail, road and foot traffic.
This would mean pedestrian overpasses instead of crossings in places such as Morningside, street closures in other places, rail cuttings or tunnels in others.
The cost is likely to exceed $100 million and it will not come from KiwiRail. The national railway accepts responsibility for the engineering of level crossings - and it is investigating this week's mishap - but it regards rail's grade separation from streets and footpaths as the responsibility of roading authorities. If Auckland Transport accept it, the cost might be shared by ratepayers and taxpayers.
With electric locomotives due to arrive this year and go into service early next year, the safety of level crossings might become more urgent. The trains will be quieter as well as quicker and more frequent, presenting a greater hazard in a city that long ago ceased to be wary of railway crossings.
Four years ago, the former Auckland Regional Council made $21 million available to its constituent councils as a subsidy for grade separation. The offer was applauded by cricketer Chris Cairns who started a national campaign for safer crossings after his sister died in a train that hit a truck. But none of the former Auckland councils took up the subsidy. They probably noticed that the risk to life was low so long as the trains were slow.
The single city council has a larger view. Its public transport plans need to clear a path for rapid transit and Auckland Transport, an agency of the council and the Government, reports that a survey of level crossings in 2009 set some priorities for their removal. Among the most urgent at that time was Morningside.
This week's near-tragedy suggests the 2011 measures were not sufficient. Unforeseeable accidents can happen without complete separation.
Its cost should be included in the bill the Auckland Council presents to the public and the Government. We need to know the full cost of upgrading the railway before it goes further.