Its 2021 – could NZ trains be made safer?

OPINION: Paradoxically KiwiRail and Track Safe NZ are calling on the public to take more care as so-called new research reveals more than 79 per cent of serious vehicle collisions with trains occur in provincial towns and rural areas.

But what are KiwiRail, Track Safe and the Transport Accident Investigation Commission doing about it?

There have been nearly 100 commissions, inquiries, discussion papers, reviews and the like in a short lifetime. All concluded crashes were the result of human behaviour and therefore not their responsibilities.

Meanwhile, a number of locomotive bumper concepts have been patented around a steerable airbag or water blast that is deployed to protect and direct a pedestrian to the side of the track.

Because of ambiguities in New Zealand about who is responsible for safety and control, there is only one way to avoid or mitigate serious rail level crossing crashes whether pedestrian or vehicular related.

Locomotive crew approaching level crossings, often report seeing a crisis approaching in those pre-impact seconds.

Consequentially locomotive crew could have, in those precious seconds, physically deployed airbags, foam, water and other devices to protect themselves and the motorist or pedestrians.

Nearly every death carries an enormous cost of ongoing trauma and several millions of dollars.

Installation of modern detection and accident-avoidance technology would therefore be self-funding.

More importantly we all have a duty of care to one another. Every statutory authority has a duty of care even if they engage other entities or agencies to carry out their statutory function. No one can contract out of a duty of care.

Catch-up KiwiRail. Surely, we can do even better than crew reaction and deployment.

Even my wife’s entry model Renault’s reversing camera is capable of sensing people and traffic approaching from lateral directions and behind, day and night, while still out of driver’s line of sight.

With today’s technology and a modicum of rail level-crossing rail safety dedication from those on eyewatering salaries, fatalities at level crossings could be avoided with sensor deploying “airbags” and other proven locomotive bumper mounted devices that would spontaneously deploy, directing people or vehicles to one side of the track, making the otherwise fatal experience survivable.

Today, Australian giant Rio Tinto Rail is looking to enhance its current collision detection system to identify potential hazards, such as people on or near its tracks.

If the tests, which are supposed to be concluded about now are successful, Rail Vision could install its system on Rio Tinto’s fleet of 220 driverless capable locomotives. The system will be supplied by Hitachi Rail as the project integrator.

According to media, the nine-month project is being executed in three stages. The first phase will involve live demonstrations and data acquisition, and the second phase will include introductory technical work in connection with the deployment of the system.

The third phase will see the installation of Rail Vision’s system in the third quarter of 2021 for about three months, for assessment.

Rail Vision will also offer support, customisation and development services throughout the project.

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, KiwiRail, Track Safe NZ and other agencies are doing good work, but New Zealand’s 1400 public rail-road level-crossings remain a significant hazard.

Policy makers, regulatory agencies, and transport sector participants need to move with the times.

Barry Erickson is a retired engineer and railway enthusiast. He lives in Havelock North.

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