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A Waimate man seriously injured when he drove his car in front of a freight train north of Timaru yesterday "was a very lucky man", police say.

"We expect the worst from train versus cars," Senior Constable said Geoff Smith said.

It was amazing the man was still alive, the train hitting his car near the front-right tyre, he told the Timaru Herald last night.

Fire crews cut the man from the mangled remains of his stationwagon, pushed 80 metres from the crossing and into the grass beside the train.

A rescue helicopter flew the man to Christchurch Hospital, where he was said to be in a serious condition last night.

Emergency services raced to the scene near Waihi School, expecting a fatality, after passers-by called for help about 4.20pm.

Senior Constable Greg Sutherland, from the Temuka police, said the driver and sole occupant of a Toyota Caldina stationwagon was travelling south on State Highway 1 when he collided with the train, also travelling south, near Winchester.

The man, aged 46, was seriously injured and flown to hospital in Christchurch. It is believed he suffered lower leg injuries.

He had been travelling south in the same direction as the train for some time before the collision, which happened on a kink in the road.

"He was actually travelling parallel with the train for several kilometres, so he should have seen it," Mr Sutherland said.

The railway signals were working, he said.

The man was lucky not to have been crushed, he said.

The incident was still under investigation but police have not ruled out pursuing a careless driving charge.

The train was 560m long and took 510m to stop. Its driver had been in the job for 40 years and had never hit a car before.

- NZPA