Every time I see a train coming, I am in awe at the impressive power of the locomotive hauling what might be several thousand tons of goods. I am in awe of this marvellous machine, and the service it is doing for New Zealand. Unfortunately every time I see a freight train coming, I also wonder if anyone is going to be dumb enough to play tag with it. Too often I see people, not prepared to wait a couple of minutes and watch the aforementioned spectacle going past try to run the gauntlet. The lights might flashing, the barrier arms might be lowering and cars in the opposite lane might be stopped on their side of the crossing, but someone might try the railway version of Russian roulette anyway.
My old Primary School has a railway line next to it. Before a cycleway was installed in the late 1990s it was all too easy to climb over the fence and play on the railway tracks, doing dangerous things such as putting stones on the rails, but also seeing what effect a train would have on a coin. I also saw children throwing stones at trains, which on occasion were stopped whilst the driver checked for damage.
There are several aspects of railway safety that concern me. Part of the problem is an attitudinal issue, caused in part by ignorance, but also an idea that no harm will come. I have seen people playing chicken on railway tracks whose signal lights were green, meaning a train is expected. When challenged, they simply said that they were having just a bit of harmless fun. I asked them if they were aware that the signal lights were green and their reaction was one of “so?”.
When I look at New Zealand’s railway crossings, although I am encouraged by the increased number that have warning markings, far too many have insufficient safety mechanisms. Even quite close to the outskirts of built up areas, there are level crossings that have no or inadequate warning features. Contrast this with Japan, where even the most simple level crossings are very well marked.
Japanese crossings have features not widespread in New Zealand, that include:
- Directional arrows showing the direction that the train is going
- Four barrier arms instead of two to stop people entering a crossing that has been activated
- A car is required to come to a complete stop before going over a level crossing
As an advocate for New Zealand railways and taking what we reasonably can off the roads, I accept that an increase in freight volumes is going to increase the probability of crashes. However the safety features that would need to be added, would pay for themselves in time by saving lives, saving Police, Fire Service and St John ambulance. A matching education campaign and changes to requirements for approaching level crossings will all go some way towards bringing an unwelcome statistic in our annual fatalities down.
The problem is, who in this Government would be interested in assisting such a plan?