Te Puke locomotive engineer Liz Cooper has been driving trains for two years and is experiencing more near-misses with drivers playing "roulette" with their lives. She shares her story with Kiri Gillespie as she relives those terrifying moments and pleads for people to stop.
"Please don't go."
Locomotive engineer Liz Cooper utters those panicked words every time she sees a driver about to make a run across the rail crossing she's approaching.
The Te Puke woman has been driving trains for about two years and loves her job. But the number of near-misses she's experienced in that time has increased.
"It's hard to sort of grasp what people must be thinking, to pull in front of a train just to save a few seconds," she said.
Cooper, who also works as a volunteer firefighter, said she was fortunate enough to have "not hit or killed anyone". But she has come close.
"I had someone pull in front of me the other night. It just happens all of the time, unfortunately. That night, it was a car full of young guys yahooing and probably trying to show off to friends and race me."
Cooper knows who would come off second-best.
"I think that's what people don't understand. It's not like trucks, we've got sometimes up to 2000 tonne-plus behind us. A fully-laded train with a lot of weight, you just can't stop.
"You're left pretty helpless, really."
Cooper often pleads for drivers to stay put as she approaches crossings. She knows they can't hear her but it helps ease her terror a little.
"It's pretty nerve wracking. If I see someone going to go, I'm sort of say 'please don't go'. I actually talk out loud to myself and then get the horn."
Sometimes the horn works. Other times it doesn't.
"Some people will still take the chance. There's really not a lot you can do. Just hope like heck they change their mind."
Cooper has seen it all: People making the run across tracks to then stop and reverse back; others weaving through barrier arms, others racing alongside on a straight to beat her at the rail crossing.
"Some of them must think it's a game of chicken, not really knowing what they are doing," she said.
There have been five-level crossing incidents in the Bay of Plenty area in the last year to June 30. Nationally, there have been 203 and another 191 near-misses.
Cooper said it was easy for people to think trains were slow and loud when often they were the opposite. She hoped her experiences would serve as a cautionary tale to warn people contemplating racing a train across a crossing that: "We can't stop, we just can't."
"Once you commit to run that crossing, you are playing roulette and we can't stop."
KiwiRail area operations leader Simon Prevett said each collision involving a train affected at least 60 people ranging from the locomotive engineer and their family to forensic investigators, cleaning crew and mechanical staff.
"All that, from a person making a choice whether to stop and look both ways," Prevett said.
"The impact [collisions] have on locomotive engineers is huge because they really can't do anything."
Prevett said KiwiRail was, wherever possible, installing fencing around railway tracks to try to prevent pedestrian access. About 460 metres worth has already been installed around Te Puke, where people often use the tracks as a footpath.
Prevett stands next to the crossing on Collins Lane, Te Puke, where in the past three-and-a-half years there have been three incidents.
The first involved a kiwifruit truck that was hit; the other two were both cars that pulled out and crashed. No one was seriously hurt in either incident but any could have easily resulted in tragedy, he said.
In June last year, two Filipino men were killed when the car they were travelling in was struck by a train on a Pongakawa School Rd crossing by State Highway 2. In April, a nine-year-old girl was critically injured when the car she was in was hit by a train at Pukehina's Duncan Lane.
TrackSafe NZ foundation manager Megan Drayton said they have set up a campaign website where people can explore near-miss memorials, mostly at level crossings.
"These ... show the severity of what could have happened and that these people narrowly avoided a serious or fatal collision."
The campaign comes as part of a rail safety awareness week which begins today.
Rail safety advice:
• Cross with care – trains can arrive at any time from either direction.
• If you're driving, obey the warning signs and look carefully in both directions for trains.
• Listen, be aware and pay careful attention to your surroundings.
• Trains can approach faster than you think, and can be quiet. They are heavy and cannot stop quickly.
• Always ensure there is space on the other side of the crossing for your vehicle before crossing the tracks.
• If you're on foot, only cross at a formed level crossing 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 this means a train is approaching.
• If a train has passed or is stopped at the station, always check both ways again to make sure another train is not coming. Two tracks may mean there is a second train.
Source - KiwiRail and TrackSafe NZ