Railway accidents can be dramatic, causing serious damage and disruption, and sometimes killing and injuring crew, passengers and other people at the scene. However, in 2008 rail travel was the safest form of land transport in New Zealand. Compared with road deaths and injuries, far fewer people are killed or hurt each year on the railways. This has been the case since road toll statistics were first collected in 1921.
Rail deaths and injuries are caused by train crashes and derailments, but also by shunting mistakes, level crossing collisions, and trespass and vandalism.
The number of people killed or injured in railway accidents was higher in the years when more people were travelling by train. The 1920s to 1940s were the peak years for rail travel – and for deaths and injuries. Occasionally a major railway accident, such as that at Hyde in 1943, caused a spike in the statistics.
The Chris Cairns Foundation
Former New Zealand representative cricketer Chris Cairns has worked to raise awareness of level-crossing accidents through the Chris Cairns Foundation. His sister Louise was one of three people killed in 1993 when a concrete-mixer truck failed to stop at a crossing, crashing into the Southerner express train at Rolleston near Christchurch.
Recent railway deaths and injuries
From 2000 to 2007 there were between 11 and 29 deaths each year, and between 34 and 75 people were injured. There has been a slight downward trend in the total casualty rate.
The high rate of level-crossing accidents caused concern in the early 2000s. Between 1998 and 2004, level-crossing accidents caused more than a third of all railway deaths. Numbers of accidents fell in 2005, but then rose again.
Policing the railways
During Rail Safety Week in 2007 a ‘Police in Cabs’ scheme was run in the Auckland area. Police officers travelled in the cabs of trains, ready to arrest level-crossing offenders and trespassers on the line.
Every year there are a number of railway accidents causing death or injury, and railway ‘incidents’, which do not cause death or injury. The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) tries to establish their causes so they can be prevented from happening again. Accident investigations, along with research and improved technology, have led to the introduction of new safety measures.
Promoting rail safety
Various agencies are responsible for rail safety. These include:
- New Zealand Transport Agency, which audits, inspects and licenses rail operators under the Rail Transport Act 2005
- Ministry of Transport, which develops rail safety targets and strategies
- Ontrack (part of the New Zealand Railways Corporation) which owns and maintains the rail network on behalf of the government, including tracks, bridges, tunnels and the land surrounding them, and the signalling system
- rail operators such as KiwiRail
- road controlling authorities, which are responsible for signs where roads cross railway tracks.