More than three-quarters of serious vehicle collisions with trains occur in provincial towns and rural areas with populations of less than 75,000. Almost half of these crashes occurred in the mornings, between 8am and noon.
Extra care and greater train safety awareness in rural areas is the main message to motorists in this week's Rail Safety Week as KiwiRail and TrackSAFE NZ share the findings of new research.
The research shows that in the past decade, 79 per cent of crashes between vehicles and trains at level crossings causing death or serious injury were in provincial towns and rural areas.
The findings from a study commissioned by TrackSAFE NZ have prompted the campaign, warning people to be vigilant when crossing railway lines.
KiwiRail group chief executive Greg Miller says while the campaign targets provincial New Zealand, it is an important message for everyone.
"Tragically, in the past 10 years 163 people have died on the rail network, 54 of those at level crossings. We don't want to see another life lost, he says.
"Farmers and rural workers are over-represented in the statistics when it comes to serious-injury and fatal vehicle crashes.
"People in rural areas often start their day early. Crossing railway lines safely may not be at the forefront of everyone's mind when starting a busy working day so we are giving people a literal wake-up call with early-morning radio ads this week reminding them to be alert to trains.
"Train accidents are unforgiving. The average freight train weighs 2000 tonnes or more and cannot swerve to avoid a car or stop easily," Miller says.
In May, Hamilton City Council decided to close the rail level crossing at the intersection of Ruffell and Onion Rds because of safety issues for road and rail users. The council said monitoring by its staff had noted incidences of non-compliant driver behaviour and near- misses occurring there. The observations were in line with feedback the council received from the public.
"A recent level crossing safety impact assessment also concluded that the Ruffell Rd level rail crossing is dangerous, with a medium-to-high risk of death or serious injury to those who cross the railway line," the city council said at the time, after consultation with KiwiRail.
That level crossing will remain closed until road realignment work in the area and the upgrade of the Arthur Porter Drive-Te Kowhai Rd T intersection to a roundabout. The work is proposed in the HCC 2021-31 long-term plan.
Nationally, we are seeing at least one vehicle collision on train lines around New Zealand every three weeks, and a near-miss every few days, Miller says.
TrackSAFE NZ foundation manager Megan Drayton says while the number of collisions with vehicles at public level crossings is declining, there is no room for complacency.
"In the 12 months to June, KiwiRail recorded 31 collisions with trains on the national network, 17 involving vehicles and 14 involving pedestrians. Of these, 12 occurred at level crossings on public roads, most of which had flashing lights, bells or barrier arms installed.
"Any collision is one too many and TrackSAFE urges pedestrians and motorists to take greater care.
"In our biggest metropolitan areas, Auckland and Wellington, we have busy networks carrying people to work and freight to ports, and the frequency of services is expected to increase."
It is not only people at risk in the rail corridor. In the past 12 months, KiwiRail train drivers (locomotive engineers) have recorded 65 incidents of hitting livestock, usually with catastrophic consequences for the animals.
"These incidents are obviously disastrous for the animals involved, but also can be traumatising for our locomotive engineers, farmers and others who may be required to euthanise injured animals and clean up the locomotive and tracks," Miller says.
"Other than drivers, cyclists and pedestrians taking care to safely cross at level crossings, our 3700km rail corridor is no place for the public or animals.
"Rail safety statistics are generally trending in the right direction, but there are still too many collisions and near-misses involving trains. These incidents are usually avoidable and we urge people to wake up to the risk that trains pose."
Rail Safety Week is co-ordinated by KiwiRail and TrackSAFE NZ in close partnership with Waka Kotahi, police, Auckland Transport, Transdev Auckland, Greater Wellington Regional Council, Transdev Wellington and councils throughout New Zealand.
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 surrounds
• 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
• If you're on foot, cross only 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
• Cross only if you are sure there are no trains approaching
• 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.