Pongakawa residents where a train crash killed two people say the tragedy could have been prevented if barrier arms were in place at the "notorious" intersection.

Two people died when the car they were travelling in was struck by the train on Pongakawa School Rd by State Highway 2 at 8.15am yesterday.

Another three people were seriously injured and taken to Waikato and Tauranga hospitals.

Western Bay of Plenty councillor Kevin Marsh said the crash was "absolutely tragic".

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"I saw the car, it was horrendous. Hit right in the middle. It needs barriers, there are no two ways about it," Marsh said.

Pongakawa School principal Craig Haggo said he did not know all the circumstances of the crash, however residents had lobbied extensively for barrier arms to be installed at this crossing for some time.

"Any loss of life is tragic and someone's family is going through a lot of pain and hurt right now, and our thoughts and prayers are with them," Haggo said.

Police at the crash scene. Photo / George Novak
Police at the crash scene. Photo / George Novak

Arden Kinghan, who works at the local BP, said the tracks were notorious with no mechanical arms to come down to stop drivers crossing the track.

"This is a very dangerous area . . . we're unfortunately quite used to this kind of stuff happening here," he said of other crashes on the tracks.

Kinghan said train drivers knew of the danger and would honk well before the intersecting roads to warn people.

The crash prompted the closure of SH2 for several hours and the serious crash unit is among authorities investigating.

A man, who was one of the first at the scene of the Pongakawa crash, said he also wanted barrier arms installed.

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The man, who asked not to be identified, said the crash was a "horrendous scene".

"But I heard the train give two loud toots and then there was continuous tooting followed by a horrific bang."

The man said all the occupants were unconscious when he reached the car so he began first aid. Another three people tried to help, including an off-duty doctor waiting in a queue of traffic.

Shanelle Whitaker, who lives opposite the crash scene, said she had seen people taking risks at this rail crossing previously, including trying to beat the train and doing "silly things".

"I saw the car flying off the tracks, and a jersey flew out, and then a pole of the train track lights fell down."

She said barrier arms would hopefully prevent people from taking any risks.

Western Bay of Plenty Mayor Garry Webber said it was a tragedy for the families, and council staff were looking into the circumstances.

Council deputy chief executive Garry Allis said the council was looking into the barrier arms matter and was unable to respond within the Bay of Plenty Times' deadline last night.

He said, however, that KiwiRail was responsible for safety at rail crossings.

The most recent serious train crash in the area was in April on Duncan Lane in Pukehina. A 9-year-old girl was critically injured when the car she was travelling in was hit by a train.

KiwiRail group chief executive Greg Miller said the crash was "a tragic incident" and his thoughts were with all those involved and their families.

The freight train had been travelling from Mount Maunganui to Kawerau but the tracks, which had flashing lights and bells, would be closed until further notice.

KiwiRail chief operating officer Todd Moyle said the Pongakawa School Rd crossing was scheduled to be upgraded with half-barrier arms early next year as part of a $26 million safety upgrade programme for about 30 New Zealand crossings.

Rail safety not-for-profit organisation Tracksafe New Zealand Foundation manager Megan Drayton said the crash was a "tragic reminder of the need for all motorists and pedestrians to take extreme care at all times around our rail network".