Belinda Feek is a NZ Herald reporter

US tourist flees country after crashing into railway lines and causing $40,000 in damage

An alleged drink-driving American tourist was pulled from the wreckage of his rental car seconds before a train crashed into it.

He was then charged with careless driving but fled the country the same day he was due to appear in court.

The tourist, Kenneth Lee Richardson, 46, was allegedlly seen by other motorists speeding just minutes before losing control, crashing into railway lines - taking out a railway station power box worth about $40,000 on the way - on Burwood Rd in Matamata early Saturday morning.

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Police said it appeared that he had failed to take a slight bend.

Richardson was dragged from his car by bystanders and fellow motorists as a freight train came hurtling towards the vehicle, crashing into it and eventually coming to a stop about 50m down the tracks.

The American national, who hails from Scottsdale, in Arizona, was charged with careless driving and was due to appear in the Hamilton District Court yesterday.

But police prosecutor Sergeant Nicola Morrison told Judge Philip Connell in court that he had failed to appear and had fled the country. The maximum penalty for the charge is a $3000 fine.

She added that when Richardson was breath-tested by police, he returned a breath alcohol level of 888mcg. The legal limit is 250mcg.

Morrison said Richardson contested the level and opted to have a blood sample taken, the results of which usually take several weeks to be determined.

"The defendant left the country this morning. He is from America and there has been significant reparation involved. There is an excess blood alcohol charge outstanding."

As well as a potential drink driving charge, Morrison told the court that Richardson had a large reparation bill waiting for him as the railway station power box he took out was worth about $40,000.

He would also likely owe the rental car company funds as insurance isn't paid out for crashes involving alcohol, she said.

She asked the judge that a warrant be issued for his arrest which would be held on his file for if he ever returned to New Zealand.

Judge Connell issued the warrant but it is understood police will not actively look for Richardson.

Gary Gotlieb, former president of the Criminal Bar Association, said a careless driving charge was not usually serious enough for police to hold on to someone's passport so they couldn't leave the country.

The charge also wasn't serious enough to warrant extradition.

"If he had caused a death, it would be a different story."

Gotlieb said he wouldn't be surprised if the rental car company's insurance provider filed civil proceedings against Richardson.

Belinda and Frank Rowson, who live near the crash site, heard the train blowing its horn about 7.30am and went to see what was happening.

"The train came roaring down," Belinda said.

"I ran out to see what was happening. The junction box was absolutely smashed! It was in parts all over the tracks."

Frank believed the train driver did well to stop in the time he did.

"He had a reasonable amount of carriage behind him, but still managed to come to an emergency stop in about 50m. I spoke to him briefly. He wasn't hurt and seemed to be okay."

Matamata deputy fire chief Warren Feek, who attended the crash, said a front corner section of the car had landed on the lines. Although the freight train driver could see the car in the distance it still took a while to come to a stop.

"He slammed on the anchors quite a way, way back and it took probably 50m past the actual crossing for him to stop, he just locked it up. The car was sitting there and [train] has just taken the front section off it, not a lot of it at all.

"He'd taken the power box out and jumped the line and the car had turned right around.
The front wheel was probably only on the track by not even a metre.

"He was walking around when I got there... There was no damage to the driver's door."

- Additional reporting Catherine Gaffaney

- NZ Herald

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