Marsh Road Railway Crossing, Rangiora: A Typical Territorial Authority’s Incompetence and Whitewashing of Road Safety

SUMMARY: This crossing is dangerous because

  • Insufficient stacking distance for vehicles to stop safely and check the crossing is clear
  • High level of driver workload on the adjacent four way intersection
  • Railway track curves within 100-200 metres of crossing depending on direction making visibility of approaching trains difficult. A train at 100 km/h can cover 200 metres in 8 seconds.
  • Kiwirail and Waimakariri District Council are jointly responsible for this crossing.
  • There have been several serious crashes at this crossing.
  • The intersection very likely carries a higher volume of traffic as a result of the South Island’s largest Pak n Save supermarket being built right next to it five years ago and this should have been covered by traffic assessments done at the time.
  • There are hundreds of dangerous railway crossings like this around NZ. Many of them are in territorial authority control and are being ignored by those authorities, Kiwirail and/or NZTA. Serious or fatal accidents continue to occur at them.
  • A crossing very similar to this one at Rolleston was the scene of a fatal level crossing accident in 1993 where cricket legend Chris Cairns’ sister was killed. This led Chris Cairns to form Tracksafe. The official report on that accident highlighted the significant deficiencies in the design of the crossing that contributed to that accident. It seems that lessons that should have been learned in 1993 are not being heeded today.

Why are territorial authorities incompetent or impotent on road safety matters? Christchurch City Council has a list of the most 100 dangerous intersections in the city. They upgrade one single intersection each year. Go to Christchurch and you’ll find cycleways that have been constructed piecemeal, with lots of painted lanes on roads (widely derided as unsafe by cyclists) interspered with short sections of separated lanes and traffic lights. It turns out that skeptical councillors were sold the cycleways when city officials realised they could use the NZTA funding to improve intersections for cars and trucks as well as pedal-power. In or about 1990, Christchurch City got its first red-light camera to detect people driving through stop lights. Decades later, how many red light cameras do you think the city has now? It still only has one.

An educated guess is that the loudest voice heard in the debate over the mishmash of priorities for the roading budget comes from motorists who want the priorities to focus on providing as many roads as possible to enable them to travel as quickly and conveniently as possible to their chosen destination. This results in a great many significant roading hazards and accident causes being sidelined. There are, for example, many dangerous railway crossings around New Zealand, and a lot of them are on roads controlled by territorial authorities. Marsh Road Railway Crossing at Southbrook, on the southern edge of Rangiora, is one such example, and it’s certainly not alone in Waimakariri District in being dangerous. Whilst it can be argued that railway crossings are inherently dangerous, there is a big difference between a crossing that is well-designed to make it safe for motor vehicles to use it without risk of collision, and one that is not well-designed at all and fails on the most basic safety standards.

There are many things that could be said about level crossing design, and this blog isn’t claiming significant expertise in that. But on studying the reports produced by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission, it becomes clear that railway crossings, even those which have a history of crashes, are not being made safe at more than an extremely lethargic pace. One of the most common design issues is short stacking distance, an issue that applies specifically to crossings like this example, where the crossing is placed close to a road intersection. Stacking is the distance required for a road vehicle to stop in clear of both the railway and the intersection. How much stacking distance is provided for at Marsh Road Crossing? The below image is from Google Earth’s Streetview and shows there is none at all. There may be a small gap between the actual railway lines and the painted line on the road, but rail vehicles occupy a wider space than the width of the track itself.

OK so a reader might argue that there doesn’t need to be any stacking distance on this site of the railway does there? Because anyone who is going to cross the railway line from this side can just drive straight across the railway line. They don’t need space to stop at the railway and be clear of the roadway. Well that is actually a big safety problem right there. The railway crossing does not have any warning devices. It relies on the drivers of vehicles being able to stop right in front of the tracks and look both ways to be sure there is no train coming, before they cross over. As you can see with this photo, if you are approaching the railway crossing from Railway Road (the parallel road to the railway line) you have to have eyes in the back of your head to be able to see a train coming from the north, i.e. right behind you – apart from being able to see out of the inside of your car with all the windows and pillars and other things that would block the view. (And don’t pretend for a second that a rear vision mirror is sufficient – you can’t legally rely on that as a defense.)

So if it’s easy to establish that traffic on Railway Road must have difficulty in being able to cross this railway line safely, maybe it’s easier on Station Road or Marsh Road itself (the two roads that are at right angles)? Actually, it’s not. Sure, if you’re on Marsh Road, there is plenty of room for you to stop safely and check the railway line before you cross over. But the problem then is the railway line is one danger and the other is the four way intersection right next to it. Any driver is not only having to consider the possibility of a train coming, they also have to look at being able to safely enter the road intersection and navigate through the traffic. There is more than a strong possibility that a longer vehicle such as a large truck, which is slow moving and takes time to build up speed, could be forced to stop partly over the railway line if a gap in the traffic doesn’t open up immediately. And it is extremely likely in any case that a volume of traffic passing through this intersection will distract any driver from the danger of the railway crossing as they will have to juggle priorities. If a vehicle is coming from Station Road and attempting to cross over Railway Road, they will not be able to have a clear view of the railway crossing without coming to a stop in front of the tracks, and the problem is that there is nowhere to actually stop without blocking the road. This in turn pressures drivers to make dangerous manouevres, to keep driving straight across the railway line without stopping to make a proper check if trains are coming.

Coming from Station Road, the issues are different, because the driver has nowhere to stop before the railway, as we saw earlier, and in fact they have to make a right turn and then a left turn to get across the railway, because Marsh Road doesn’t actually line up with Station Road. That fact alone makes the intersection dangerous, even before the added risk of the crossing is taken into account.

Here’s the view a driver will get coming from the Marsh Road side of the crossing. How is it possible they will not become preoccupied with the traffic at the intersection ahead and distracted from the railway line? Steve Gurney is perhaps the most prominent person to crash into a train on this crossing. In 2011 he apparently crossed over from Marsh Road onto the intersection, meaning he viewed it from the direction shown in the photo immediately above. He was taken to court and pleaded guilty, saying he was “distracted” but in the opinion of this blog, he should have got a lawyer and defended the charge, because there is plenty of precedent for accidents at crossings like this one where the “high driver workload” contributed to the crossing accident. That is also the course of action this blog would recommend for the driver whose crash into the Tranz Coastal train three days ago inspired this post.

Ultimately there are a lot of questions to be answered about this crossing and hundreds like it around the country. TAIC have started to ask these questions because they see a pattern in the reports they have done: Kiwirail and the roading authorities passing the buck to each other. There have been a spate of serious or fatal accidents at crossings just like this one around the country. The Rolleston 1993 crash that killed three people on the Southerner was at a crossing just like this one. 27 years later, what are the powers that be doing about crossings like these? Still ducking for cover and avoiding blame. The blog has made Official Information Act requests to Waimakariri District Council and Kiwirail for the safety assessments for this crossing. WDC has also been asked for traffic assessments done on this road, because that building you can see in the right background is the South Island’s largest Pak n Save supermarket, opened in 2015. If you look at the photo at the top of this page, that whole block of land with two buildings on it is now completely covered by the Pak n Save and its carpark. Traffic volume on Railway Road has almost certainly increased because of this development.

NZTA is so up with it as designers of safe level crossings that they are now putting railway lines through the middle of roundabouts. This blog has serious concerns about this design practice. A roundabout is where traffic is not supposed to stop at any time. Roundabouts create a high driver workload. For this reason alone, any railway crossing should be a long way from a major road intersection and yet NZTA has built several of these roundabouts on state highways.

This example shown above is at Blenheim and is the most recently built one. Even with warning devices on the railway crossing there is still the risk a distracted driver will crash into a train on the crossing. This lesson that should have been learned at Rolleston in 1993 has not been heeded. Rolleston in 1993 was where cricket legend Chris Cairns’ sister was killed when she was travelling on the Southerner train. Chris Cairns founded the Tracksafe foundation as a response to that. The railway crossing at George Holmes Road in Rolleston where that fatal crossing smash took place had warning devices but they did not stop the accident. Ultimately when that crossing was closed and the new crossing was opened at Hoskyns Road, traffic lights were put on that intersection to remove the high driver workload and make the level crossing safer to use. There have been no more level crossing accidents since that time.

There is another issue with this crossing that Kiwirail has to take more responsibility for. The track approaching in both directions is curved. That means people would only be able to see a train coming from 100 – 200 metres away, depending on the direction that it is coming from. A train going at 100 km/h would cover 200 metres in less than 10 seconds. That is a huge risk for drivers and raises massive questions about the ability of a vehicle driver to see when a train is too close to be safe for them to cross over.
There are literally hundreds of dangerous crossings like Marsh’s Road in New Zealand and the only reason we don’t see many accidents is because there aren’t that many trains on a lot of them daily. But there is this example in Henderson in Auckland and it is far from being the only dangerous crossing in Auckland City.

It is obvious why it is dangerous yet it carries a high number of trains in a double track area with commuter services, not many freights are going through. Kiwirail’s own website shows there are around 100 trains and 14,000 vehicles over this crossing every day. This crossing is on a list of proposals by Auckland Transport to eliminate level crossings. Greater Auckland posted an article listing this crossing about three years ago. It is obvious that even with warning devices this crossing is a real risk and daily danger in Auckland for train passengers and motorists alike.

Anyway that’s the end of this post. There will be one very soon just about the Rolleston crossing accident in 1993. Stay tuned.

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