A Te Puke child has been flown to Starship children's hospital in a critical condition after the car she was in was hit by a train travelling at full speed alongside State Highway 2 today.
The 9-year-old was with her mother, 41, and sister, 5, when the car they were in crossed train tracks on Duncan Lane, near Pukehina, about 8.30am. An empty KiwiRail train was travelling at full speed towards Kawerau at the time.
The impact of the collision flipped the car down into a ditch.
Pukehina fire chief Errol Watts said he braced himself for the worst as he and the brigade responded.
"Particularly at this time of the morning. We are very aware that so many people take their children to school. I was thinking 'it will be a mother taking her kids to school'."
Watts said he was surprised and relieved when he arrived at the scene.
Despite the impact of the collision, firefighters found the mother and children already out of the wreck and walking around. All three were taken to Tauranga Hospital. The 9-year-old was transferred to Auckland's Starship hospital this afternoon.
The train driver was not physically injured but was "shaking like a leaf", Watts said.
KiwiRail chief operations officer Henare Clarke said the train driver was significantly "shaken up".
"He has a wife and kids and he would be relating to that as well."
The driver, from the Bay of Plenty, is now being cared for by the KiwiRail team.
"These incidents are very traumatic," Clarke said.
Heightened awareness at rail crossings was critical, he said.
"The trains are extremely heavy and the time that it takes to stop them is in the hundreds of metres. It's extremely hard for us."
The crossing comes off a rural property and has no lights or barrier arms but does have signage.
"When people approach crossings they need to look both ways to make sure no trains are coming. People just need to be aware."
In 2017, Bay of Plenty Regional Council engineer Arch Delahunty was killed after being hit by a train at Otamarakau, just a kilometre or two east of this morning's collision.
It is understood the train driver involved in this morning's incident was the same involved in 2017's.
In February last year, a woman and young child narrowly escaped serious injury after their vehicle and a train collided at SH2 and Kairua Rd.
In May of 2018, two adults and two children escaped uninjured after a collision between the car they were in and a train at the intersection of Wilson Rd South and Tauranga's Eastern Link.
Emergencies services said at the time it was sheer luck they were not attending to four deaths.