Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Knocked over on hard road to independence

A young disabled woman's life has been changed forever after her wheelchair got stuck at a crossing and was hit by a train. But is it fair to simply blame KiwiRail, financially strapped and run down by warring politicians?

Trains, for a young woman with cerebral palsy, represented freedom.

The woman, now 22, overcame huge odds to get to where she could get around Auckland unaided in her electric wheelchair.

Born eight weeks premature, she began to lose movement abilities after contracting meningitis at six weeks.

She lost her hearing when she was 2. Since then she has been profoundly deaf and unable to speak.

Her parents, both professionals, went to extraordinary lengths to help their only child to become "part of society" despite her impairments.

As well as sending her to the Kelston Deaf Education Centre, where she learned sign language, they paid for conductive education and private therapy.

From Kelston, she went to a special unit at Mt Roskill Grammar School where she gained NCEA credits and learned to use a communication device that enabled her to write messages in English.

"They saw that she had skills. She was made for technology," her mother says. "Her confidence just went right up."

When she left school, the young woman took on two part-time volunteer jobs with two agencies.

She was an active member of a youth group through PHAB (Physically Handicapped, Able-Bodied) and attended one of their leadership courses.

She went everywhere by train. She regularly wheeled herself from her parents' home to the nearest station 4km away.

"She had been catching the train for 18 months. She goes all over Auckland on the train," her mother says. "The irony for my daughter is that the trains represented freedom. When you're in a wheelchair you are reliant on using your mum as a taxi, or on taxis, and taxis are so prohibitively expensive, so for my daughter it represented freedom that she could do it herself and get around Auckland."

Like her mother, the young woman is "a very strong-willed girl".

"She wants to be like everybody else, and part of that is that you don't have your mother tagging along with you. That's what she was saying to me in the last two years.

"In her last year at school, one of her goals was to go flatting, so I looked at agencies and realised there were not a lot that were suitable, so the only way to make it happen was to buy the services and wrap the services around her."

On the last weekend in February, the young woman finally moved into her new flat in St Lukes Rd. On the Monday morning, February 25, she wheeled herself past several residential and commercial blocks to get to the Morningside station, intending to catch the train to one of her jobs at Elevator Services in Greenlane.

She never made it.

As she crossed the railway line to get to the station, her chair wheels twisted and got stuck. She couldn't move and she couldn't call for help.

The lights started ringing and the barrier arms came down to stop cars on Morningside Drive. A freight train was roaring in.

At the last minute, a young female jogger and a young man, Matthieu Mereau, saw what was happening and tried to free her, but couldn't get her wheelchair out of the rut.

"We tried to move her, but there was nothing we could do till the very, very last second when the train was almost upon us," Mr Mereau said at the time.

All he and the jogger could do was push the wheelchair over. All three fell over backwards. The train hit the edge of the chair and dragged it _ with the young woman still strapped into it _ along the concrete until the train finally stopped.

Her injuries were horrific.

"She nearly died in the first week," her mum says. "The intensivist said 'pray'. I said 'what can you do?' and he said 'pray'."

The surgeons were afraid to operate for several days and could only manage her pain.

When it was safe to proceed, she had a two-hour operation on a fractured right humerus (upper arm bone). On the Saturday they did a fracture in her leg. On the Tuesday they put a plate in her broken hip. On the Wednesday they repaired her left elbow.

They amputated part of her left foot. They put a plate in her left hand. They cut a tracheotomy into her windpipe and stuck a feeding tube down her nose.

In the past few days she has finally started to respond to her parents.

"She's clearly recognising us," her mother says. "She's signing that she's in pain, and it's itchy."

It's too early yet to know whether she has suffered lasting brain damage. She will be in hospital for at least another six weeks.

"The fact that she's responding and communicating is positive, and she's very strong-willed. She has a lot to live for, I have to hope that's what pulls her through."

It's happened before

KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn told the Auckland Council's Disability Strategic Advisory Group yesterday that the tragedy had changed the way his company thought about pedestrian rail crossings.

"We call them 'footpaths', which talks about walking rather than prams, pushchairs and wheelchairs," he said. "We need to think about our approach going into the future."

But this is not the first time a wheelchair has got stuck on a rail crossing.

Sacha Dylan, a disability strategist, has been lobbying about the problem since 2006 when, as Auckland president of the Disabled Persons Assembly, he took up the cause of an elderly woman who was stuck in her wheelchair three times at the crossing at Manuroa Rd, Takanini.

She was able to call out and people rescued her each time.

Kerry Hills, who commutes by train to work at the Muscular Dystrophy Association, got stuck in his wheelchair at a crossing at Church St East in Penrose last year.

"When I went over a bump it just killed the wheelchair completely and I got stuck," he says.

"It was a close call. My friend had dropped me off and was driving away, but he saw me and knew how to put the chair into manual."

In 2006 Mr Dylan gave KiwiRail a comprehensive Australian report done by Sinclair Knight Mertz after two people were killed when their wheelchairs got stuck on rail crossings in Melbourne within weeks of each other in 2001.

It found that "conventional asphalt pavings are prone to deterioration at crossings", and recommended special rubber pavements designed to withstand the heat and pressure of passing trains.

KiwiRail installed the rubber paving at St Jude St in Avondale in 2008 and at Portage Rd in New Lynn in 2009. It tried it at Manuroa Rd, but removed it for technical site-specific reasons.

Spokeswoman Jenni Austin says the rubber is still in place at five level crossings on the Western Line for cars, and at three of them for pedestrians. It is also used at a service crossing/emergency exit at Newmarket station.

But the vast majority of the 59 pedestrian rail crossings between Swanson and Pukekohe are still asphalt paths. Asphalt was laid down again at Morningside Drive immediately after last month's accident.

"I'd give it a couple of weeks, maybe," says Mr Hills. "I used the same crossing but I avoided it like the plague. I had made many complaints over the years but nothing ever got done, so I kind of gave up."

A systemic problem

Mr Quinn readily conceded yesterday that the Morningside crossing was "not in the shape that we would like to require", but he said the company was still trying to find out what went wrong.

"Both Morningside and Kingsland stations had a lot of investment leading up to the World Cup, so we know it was in good nick around October 2011. Our focus is on the period from there onwards."

He cautioned against "leaping to one answer" such as rubber paving.

"Rubber mats actually were not an option for us at that time [2011]," he said.

"However, if we were designing again there are some things we might look at now that we didn't then. That's not just a question of cost, it was a question of timing _ we needed to get things done before the World Cup."

Vivian Naylor, a disability access adviser to both KiwiRail and Auckland Transport, says KiwiRail "took on a dog" when Helen Clark's Government renationalised the railways after they were run down by the American owners who bought them from Jim Bolger's Government in 1993.

"I think it's systemic," she says. "A hell of a lot of work was needed to bring it up to scratch, not having enough money to do it, needing to be selective on what you are going to work on, followed by design standards that are appropriate for the variety of people crossing, and a maintenance programme that is put into practice by the understanding of the maintenance people.

"If they don't understand the implications of different surfaces for the disabled, it's not going to be at the forefront of their actions."

Read more: Victim's mother wants reparation

- NZ Herald

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