31 Oct 2016

Coroner calls for overhaul of KiwiRail level crossing assessments

From Nine To Noon, 9:08 am on 31 October 2016

A Coroner's report on a man fatally hit by a train has called for an overhaul of how KiwiRail determines the safety of level crossings, including collecting information on near-misses.

In a related move, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) has added level crossings to its watch list of crucial safety concerns.

The coronial comment came in a report into the death of George Robert Ellis, who died after a train hit his truck in Ashburton, in July 2014.

Rail Crossing

Photo: 123RF

It was found that while Mr Ellis failed to stop for the oncoming train, the angle of the sun and the presence of a shed near the crossing made it more difficult for him to see the train.

Lawyer Garth Gallaway - who acted for George Ellis - said there was an extra problem of near-misses which KiwiRail had not been keeping track of.

In addition, Mr Ellis died when he was blinded by sunlight at the time of the crash, but KiwiRail looked at the accident from the point of view of the train driver only, not from the point of view of the driver of the road vehicle.  

Mr Gallaway said there had been a previous near-miss at the same site where a driver could not see the train because of blinding sunlight - and that case led to the driver being prosecuted for careless driving.  

He said if KiwiRail broadened out its inquiries, then safety at level crossings could be greater.      

KiwiRail responded to this by saying that it did collect information on near misses, saying so far this year there were records of 129 of them.  

Group general manager David Gordon said this material was collected on a weekly basis and the company was also sending a roadshow around to communities to warn of the dangers from level crossings.

Mr Gordon also welcomed the addition of rail crossings to TAIC's watchlist, saying this would bring the issue of rail safety to public attention.   

The only way to get further improvements would be to get closer to local authorities and the New Zealand Transport Agency, he said.  

Mr Gordon added that the site of the accident was set down for improved protection, such as lights and bells, and it was number 30 in the priority list at the time of the crash.  

He added Kiwirail spent about $1.3 million annually on level crossing improvements and local governments paid a similar amount, though part of the local authority cost came from central funding.  

Mr Gordon also said train drivers sometimes became inured to bad behaviour at level crossings.  

"We see on our cameras on our trains behaviour than frankly makes your hair turn grey," he said.  

"Occasionally we do get frustrated that despite the efforts in promoting safety in work, we still get people driving past barriers."