Railway accidents occur for a range, and sometimes a combination, of reasons.
Faults with modern locomotives pulling trains are uncommon, but parts can become worn or broken. Overheated axle bearings have caused derailments, and brake failure has led to some accidents, such as one that killed four people and injured 22 at Rakaia in 1899. A train approaching a station in heavy rain smashed into the rear of another train while trying to stop. After this tragedy Westinghouse airbrakes were fitted to all locomotives, and to rolling stock like carriages and wagons.
Track or signal defects
High standards of track construction and maintenance are vital to safety. Many of the sharp curves and steep gradients once common on New Zealand railways were corrected in the 20th century.
Signals could also be substandard in early days: this was another factor in the 1899 Rakaia crash. Over time signal failure became rare. However, missing or misleading speed warning boards, which show speed restrictions for different sections of track, were a cause of a 1981 crash. The Silver Fern railcar travelling from Wellington to Auckland went too fast around a curve, and rolled over, killing four people and injuring 16.
Maintaining the tracks
From 1880, when the Railways Department was established, track maintenance was improved to the level where it was described as first class. After the privatisation of railways in 1993, maintenance standards slipped. Remedial work was needed when the rail network was bought back by the government in 2004.
Accidents often occur when the driver, shunting or station crew make errors of judgement. Speeding, not following procedures, missing or ignoring signals, falling asleep and drunkenness are some examples. Sometimes tight timetables or inexperience lead to mistakes. This was the case when a driver wrecked the Picton to Christchurch express in 1948. He had less than 18 months’ experience, and was speeding to meet a tight timetable. Six people were killed and 43 injured as the result of what he admitted was ‘a terrific error’.1
Weather and geology
Much of New Zealand’s landscape is unstable, and the weather can be fickle. The combination can lead to floods and subsidence that destroy sections of track or make them treacherous. When curves block the driver’s view ahead, collisions with slips are hard to avoid.
Weather alone can cause disasters. A gust of gale-force wind blew a train’s carriages off the Remutaka incline in 1880, resulting in three deaths and injuries to 21 people. Thick fog covered a trackside speed restriction board in 1938, causing a Wellington to New Plymouth passenger train to derail. This accident killed six people and injured 40.
Trespass and vandalism
People or farm stock on railway tracks can be killed, and cause damage to trains. Often human trespassers are suicidal, or affected by alcohol or drugs. Some are using tracks and tunnels as a short cut. Occasionally people deliberately put objects on tracks to try and derail a train, or throw objects at trains.
A near-death experience
Nineteenth-century Dunedin lawyer Alfred Hanlon recalled a near miss when as a child, he and an adult took a short cut through a tunnel just before the express steam train passed through. Pressed back against the wall ‘the almost irresistible pull of the draught, the roaring darkness, the fumes of smoke, and the wet kiss of steam and flying embers from the engine stack combined to comprise an experience I have never forgotten’.2
Carelessness at level crossings
Level crossings, where roads intersect with railway tracks, are a common accident site. Accidents happen when drivers fail to look, or underestimate the speed of the oncoming train.
With the increase in motor vehicles from the 1920s, level-crossing accidents became more of a problem. Warning bells, flashing lights and barrier arms were gradually installed at major crossings, but cost and engineering difficulties mean many remain uncontrolled.
Even warning devices do not always prevent accidents. A couple died and their five-year-old daughter was orphaned when their car collided with a freight train at a level crossing at Ōhingaiti, Rangitīkei, in 2007. Reports suggest the family were temporarily blinded by sunstrike, and in their confusion ignored bells and lights.