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A plea for safer behaviour at rail crossings

Published: 21 September 2018
Keenan Matthes. Photo courtesy of Kara Matthes

In April last year, 16-year old Keenan Matthes was out jogging, working to accomplish his goal of becoming a stronger and fitter rugby player. Running across railway tracks while wearing in-ear headphones, he was struck by an oncoming train and killed.

This heart-breaking account of losing their dearly beloved son was presented by Keenan’s parents, Karamea and Presley Matthes, to Auckland Council’s Community Development and Safety Committee on 16 August, coinciding with this year’s rail safety week. 

Karamea told the committee that Keenan was wearing in-ear headphones with his phone in his hand and was closed off to his surroundings.

“He was completely unaware of the dangers around him,” said Karamea. “A split second was all it took to end our son’s future.”

Safety at rail crossings more important than ever

Councillor Cathy Casey, chair of the Community Development and Safety Committee, echoed the thoughts of all present when she talked about the tragic loss of Keenan.

“Losing any life in this way is unacceptable, and the loss of such a promising vibrant and loving young man is a poignant reminder that we must check for trains, every time, without fail.

“We have electric trains in Auckland. They run frequently, in both directions and they are very quiet. If someone is distracted, it would be easy not to hear a train coming and step out on the tracks,” said Councillor Casey.

Karamea and Presley Matthes are championing the international safety campaign ‘One Ear Out, Tune into your Surroundings.’ The committee unanimously voted to endorse this campaign and the efforts of the Matthes’ whanau to change the behaviour of people crossing railway tracks.

In recent years there has been an increasing trend in incidents involving pedestrians and cyclists, particularly at urban level crossings. Complacency and distractions like cell phones and headphones mean that people often don’t consciously check for trains.

What is being done?

Auckland Transport and KiwiRail are working to install more automatic safety swing gates at pedestrian rail crossings to provide an added form of protection. These gates are activated by a sensor on the tracks and have a safety zone with an emergency exit gate. When a train approaches these pedestrian level crossings, the bells sound, red lights flash on and off and the crossing gates close automatically.

Auckland Transport’s Group Manager, Major Projects, David Nelson, says keeping pedestrians, especially our children safe is imperative.

“We are working to make public transport travel safe for everyone. There have been some tragedies at certain pedestrian level crossings and these gates will go a long way to ensure greater safety for all.”

Safety swing gates are an important safety feature but do not reduce the absolute need for pedestrians to pay attention and look for trains at rail crossings.

The Community Development and Safety Committee has requested a report on pedestrian rail safety be presented to its meeting on 15 November.