Headphones and quiet electric trains are part of modern life in our big cities.

They are also a deadly combination at railway crossings, and have claimed the lives of people like Keenan Matthes, out on an early morning run in April this year, and Tejaskumar Patel, who was getting off a train two years ago.

Both young men were wearing headphones when they were hit by commuter trains in Auckland.

Today, KiwiRail with TrackSAFE NZ, other transport bodies, the Automobile Association, councils and the police, kick off Rail Safety Week, which is focused this year on pedestrian safety in Auckland and Wellington and motorist safety in rural areas.

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Between 2005 and May 2016, there were 20 reported deaths from train accidents at pedestrian level crossings.

TrackSAFE foundation manager Megan Drayton said there had been a rise in the number of pedestrian near misses at rail crossings. Last year there was something like 94, and this year there had been 68 so far.

In 2010, there were 15 reported near misses. KiwiRail says the sharp rise is partly attributed to an increased focus on reporting near misses and a global trend in rail accidents involving pedestrians using technology

Drayton said headphones had been involved in a number of recent deaths and a factor in near misses. Other factors feeding into the figures are growing populations, more train services and faster and quieter trains.

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"People are often on autopilot when they're familiar with an environment and don't remember to look up from their phones or remove their headphones when they approach a level crossing, " Drayton said.

KiwiRail spokesman for Rail Safety Week, David Gordon, said there had been a number of incidents recently where headphones have been found to be the cause of accidents.

"These are incredibly traumatic events which impact on the victim's friends and family as well as on their local community, and on our people.

"We take safety extremely seriously at KiwiRail, and we're urging everyone to be aware of their surroundings and take care around railway crossings," said Gordon.

KiwiRail has a long-term programme to upgrade level crossing throughout the country.
KiwiRail has a long-term programme to upgrade level crossing throughout the country.

The slogan for Rail Safety Week is "remove your headphones, remove your risk".

"If you are approaching a level crossing or a road for that matter, then the best advice is to take both your headphones out. The other important thing is to stop and look both ways for trains," says Drayton.

Research from Auckland University's School of Population Health has shown that pedestrians who listen to music through earphones are significantly impaired in their ability to localise warning signals above the noise of traffic and trains around them.

The research, undertaken by Associate Professor Grant Searchfield and Alicia Tay, found the main problem was not detecting sound, but identifying where it came from.

Tight-fitting in-ear earphones and headphones covering the ears produced greater problems locating the direction of sounds and increased the risk of miscalculating the direction of approaching trains or traffic, compared to earphones sitting in the outside of the ear.

Searchfield said the outer ear provides useful information to identify sounds, as do both ears working together as a set.

"Taking out one earphone to reduce risk of accidents may not be as safe as people think, as that further disrupts our ability to tell where sounds are coming from," he said.

A train driver had to apply the emergency brakes on a service at Mount Eden station this morning after a woman crossed in front of the train.

The academics' next focus is on design solutions to reduce the risks of listening to music over headphones. New research will look at the effects of using a new generation of headphones that do not block external sound.

KiwiRail, New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) and Auckland Transport are undertaking programmes to upgrade level crossings and make them safer.

Auckland Transport is 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.

KiwiRail is working on a number of initiatives with NZTA, including trialling a new warning system which sees flashing LED lights installed in the footpath near crossings.

The lights, which are being trialled in Rangiora, Porirua and Palmerston North, are designed to alert pedestrians who are wearing headphones or carrying mobile devices that a train is approaching.

Other measures being trialled are solar powered warning signs, and signals that activate early when an over-length vehicle is approaching a crossing.

A social media campaign which highlights the importance of stopping the music as you approach the tracks, and featuring Wellington band Drax Project, will be launched today for Rail Safety Week.

Key messages for Rail Safety Week

• Every time you're near railway tracks, be alert. Trains can come at any time, from either direction.
• Only cross at formed pedestrian crossings or an overpass or underpass.
• Remove your headphones, stop and always look both ways for trains before crossing the tracks.
• Only cross if you are sure there are no trains in sight.
• Obey the warning signs at the crossing - if lights are flashing or bells are ringing it means a train is approaching.
• If a train has passed or is stationary at a station, always check both ways again to make sure another train is not coming. Two tracks might mean there is a second train.

For further information about Rail Safety Week see www.tracksafe.co.nz

Train deaths and near misses in Auckland:

April 2017:

Dramatic footage emerges of a woman who narrowly avoided serious injury or death after crossing a rail line at Mt Eden moments before a train whizzes by.

April 2017: Keenan Matthes, 16, was wearing headphones on a run when he was struck by a train and killed in Ranui.

October 2016: A woman survives after her vehicle was struck by a train at Morningside station.

August 2016: Man killed after being hit by train in Penrose. "The barriers were down, the lights were going and the train was honking but he was too slow." said a witness.

December 2015: An Auckland train driver's vigilance averted a potential fatal outcome for a baby whose pram rolled onto the tracks in Manurewa. On the same day a 46-year-old woman was killed after being struck by a train after crossing the tracks at Henderson.

January 2015: A 24-year man wearing earphones was killed when he was struck by a train at Morningside station. The Transport Accident Investigation Commission said he was likely distracted by the use of his mobile phone.

February 2013: A 22-year-old woman was hit by a train when her wheelchair got stuck in the tracks at Morningside station. Bystanders struggled to free her as the barrier arms came down and bells sounded the rapid approach of a freight train.