"He just walked straight out in front of me... I think I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth."

These are the words of train driver Steve Lowson, whose worst nightmare flashed before his eyes when budding rugby star Keenan Matthes was struck and killed at a rail crossing in Ranui, West Auckland.

It was just like any other autumn morning when Lowson began work on April 20 this year; slightly overcast with a bit of mist in the air as he headed out for the first run of the day to Swanson and back on the western line.

I think about the family and the young man who lost his life every time I go through Ranui

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Matthes, a 16-year-old Massey High School student and North Harbour rugby rep, was heading out from the family home in Ranui for an early morning run. He was wearing headphones.

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Lowson, in an exclusive interview with the Herald for Rail Safety Week, recalls the moment he saw Matthes as the train came into Ranui station.

Train driver Steve Lowson's worst nightmare flashed before his eyes when budding rugby star Keenan Matthes was struck and killed at a rail crossing in Ranui, West Auckland. Photo / Dean Purcell
Train driver Steve Lowson's worst nightmare flashed before his eyes when budding rugby star Keenan Matthes was struck and killed at a rail crossing in Ranui, West Auckland. Photo / Dean Purcell

As the six-car commuter train approached Metcalfe Rd just before the station, Lowson had begun to slow down from about 90km/h to between 50km/h and 60km/h.

He could see the road barrier arms were down at Metcalfe Rd and the lights flashing.

"As I came towards the level crossing I just noticed the chap walking through the pedestrian maze. You think, I have seen the person, and they are going to do what they always do and stop at the entrance to the line, and wait for me to pass through.

"He appeared to be walking with purpose, like he was on a mission. From memory he sort of appeared to be glancing down. He may have been looking at something in his hands. I also remember he was wearing headphones.

"The actual collision itself happened so quickly. When I saw him walk out I don't think I said anything but I almost said to myself subconsciously 'no, don't'.

"I think I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth.

"We are talking about two seconds from the time I was aware there was a person walking through the pedestrian maze to the time that I hit him," said Lowson, teary eyed as he talked about the incident from start to finish for the first time.

Lowson instantly pulled on the emergency brake, and hoped for the best. The 144m-long train stopped, straddling the platform and blocking Metcalfe Rd.

Lowson was in shock and could not face going back to the scene of the accident.

"The train manager wandered back up and said he was not moving."

Lowson, 54, was a policeman for 22 years before retraining to become a train driver seven years ago. He has witnessed his share of trauma from road deaths but being behind the controls of the train that day was a whole new experience.

The incident also reminded him of a near-miss at the same rail crossing in about 2012 when a man pushing a bicycle came out in front of him as he was passing another train.

"He literally flew through the air in front of me and I must have missed him by no more than two or three feet. It gave me a huge shock," the Transdev driver said.

Lowson said he sees people every day dashing across rail lines after the barriers come down and the lights start flashing.

"It's just what people do, but you just hope they are aware of their surroundings and are going to make it across safely," said Lowson, adding people take the risk thinking they know the routine of the train.

Not long after the incident, Lowson said he was asked by Auckland Transport about meeting up with the family of Keenan Matthes, but felt uncomfortable with the idea.

"I thought the family have been through so much and it wasn't easy on me either and I didn't want to go through all the grief again."

Keenan's mum Karamea Matthes said the family's hearts went out to Lowson, and they thought of him often. Their door was always open to him, she said.

The Matthes family have joined an international campaign calling on people to drop at least one of their headphones when out and about, in a bid to save lives.

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Matthes said there were safety measures - barriers, bells and lights - in place for cars at Metcalfe Rd but nothing 2m away inside the pedestrian maze to tell her son the train was coming, except for a sign to look out for trains.

After meetings with Auckland Transport, flax at the site was removed and funding was found to install automated gates on the four pedestrian crossings at Metcalfe Rd.

Auckland Transport is now committed to installing automatic gates on all pedestrian crossings when the warning bells and lights are activated, and plans to close four pedestrian level crossings at Papatoetoe, Glen Innes and Homai stations and Sarawia St, Newmarket.

After 10 days off work, Lowson returned to work and driving trains across Auckland, including the western line.

"I think about the family and the young man who lost his life every time I go through Ranui. There is no getting away from it. I give it some thought, but I'm okay."

Steve Lowson's advice for people at level crossings

"When you are in and around level crossings be aware of your surroundings.

"Put your cellphone in your pocket, take your headphones off your ears and use all your senses.

"Just doing those couple of small things actually might one day save your life."